Friday, August 26, 2011

Conquered by the apes

When I was a kid, Planet of the Apes loomed pretty large. The five films were on TV frequently, and there was also a series. It only lasted a single season, but I remember it quite well; I think for a while it was a staple of British daytime TV. Everyone always recalls Charlton Heston and the final shot of the first film, where it’s revealed that the alien planet ruled by talking apes is actually Earth in the future, but that doesn’t represent the totality of the Apes concept. The movies form a narrative loop – the end of the first sequel sends two of the apes back in time to the present day, and subsequent movies show how they provide the origin for an evolutionary wave that will first challenge and then topple mankind. It’s a grandly epic concept, but in practice meant a lot of murky skirmishing and of having to listen to Roddy McDowall in an ape mask (and if memory serves, the quality of the make-up effects fell off a lot as the series went on). Anyway, you didn’t need to be a major league Darwinologist to conclude the whole thing was nuts, and after Jaws and Star Wars changed things a few years later, the Apes films were about as exciting as faded old board games, apparently confirmed by Tim Burton’s failed attempt at kick-starting the concept ten years ago.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

It’s interesting that the new version of the story, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, opened a few weeks after Project Nim, the documentary about the 1970’s attempt to educate a chimpanzee in human sign language. As I wrote here a few weeks ago, Nim remains a potent symbol because he embodies the continuing duality of our views on animals: identifiable enough to be subjected to such a project, but different enough to be discarded when it didn’t work out. The early stages of the new Apes film could almost be a fictional version of Nim’s story – James Franco plays a research scientist for a bottom-line driven corporation, using chimpanzees in clinical trials for anti-Alzheimer’s and related applications; when the axe suddenly falls on the whole program, he takes home a baby from a treatment-enhanced mother. Caesar, as they name him, progresses along a learning curve far exceeding that of any human baby, but just like Nim, the cuteness falls away as he gets older, and he eventually gets into trouble, finding himself locked up in a hellish ape facility. Unlike the other downtrodden inmates of course, he has the resources to fight back.

Although all of this is obviously highly simplified and condensed, it’s probably as sane an origin story for the Planet of the Apes myth as one could ever devise (obviously that’s not the same as saying it actually is sane). The movie moves along cleanly and sympathetically, building in a satisfying dose of spectacle and scope for visceral identification, always feeling like a bit more than a calculated action machine. It cleverly explains not only why the apes gain strength, but also why the humans almost simultaneously succumb to catastrophic weakness; the path to more films is triumphantly well-lit at the end.

Limitations of the apes

At times it’s easy to say the digital work looks a bit artificial (I generally found the baby Caesar more fake-looking than the adult), but if you can remind yourself there was a time when you were impressed merely by Roddy McDowall in a mask, then you get past it. Some found Franco a low-key protagonist, but then he’s not really the protagonist at all, but rather a privileged witness to momentous events. It’s not particularly brutal or bloody, which might be viewed as limiting the impact, but on the other hand allows it a somewhat more cerebral tone than it might have had. In many ways, you might respond to it less as a film than as a logistical project, where you can admire the design and execution even if it’s hardly relevant to your own life.

That’s the limitation of the picture I suppose – that even with the head start Project Nim provides it, it doesn’t carry any great moral or thematic charge. The film’s reflection on scientific ethics doesn’t go much beyond the notion that, well, mistreating apes is bad, particularly when that’s propelled by a particularly unashamed focus on bottom-line profits. It doesn’t construct a very deep or complex universe – until the home stretch, it really only has a handful of significant characters and locations. As I mentioned, it neatly plants the seeds that’ll grow to choke off humanity’s major head start, but this means it limits its capacity for broader metaphorical impact. I mean, global finances, debt crises, unemployment burdens and un-faced environmental wretchedness provide a plausible basis for predicting the tottering of our species (if not quite its surrender to any other species, except perhaps for the ants), but there’s no hint of that in Wyatt’s film: the rise of the planet of the apes takes place very specifically in middle-class San Francisco, and frankly, it appears they can largely take the blame for it (particularly the British guy in their midst). It’s surprising because, you know, it’s not really Republican territory.

Just a movie

In the end, there’s something broadly comforting about the film; however enveloping the narrative might be for as long as it lasts, it’s very plainly just a movie. Since I imagine a large percentage of viewers will ultimately find themselves rooting for the apes rather than the humans, it may provide the sense of moral cleansing, of allowing us the illusion of carrying a rounded perspective on our excesses (there was a similar reversal at the heart of Avatar, popularly regarded not just as a big movie but also an important one). But again, this only makes it easy not to think about more imminent threats. Like the viral-based experiments it depicts, it pumps its audience with a manageable dose of malignancy, thus inoculating them from more violent infestations. That is, fantasizing about the threat of the apes is much easier than fully tuning into the stuff that’s actually happening (including, with dark irony, their severely endangered status).

The film isn’t particularly sensitive to spoilers – there’s not much chance I guess that a movie called Rise of the Planet of the Apes would fail to deliver any actual rising. The final scenes suggest the possibility of what we might call a two-state solution – for now at least, the apes’ interest is in attaining freedom and dignity, not world domination (based on what’s depicted in the film, it’s unlikely they could even process that concept). But obviously the sequel won’t have them stopping there – there’s not much chance a franchise built around the “Planet of the Apes” concept will have them settling for less than, well, the planet. It’s hard to predict whether that’ll evoke horror or resignation.

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