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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: Andy Serkis, James Franco, John Lithgow

(US DVD: 13 Dec 2011)

Planet of the Apes fans had more than a little anxiety about the 2011 prequel to the classic series. Most still felt burned by what had looked like the best opportunity to reboot the franchise back in 2001. Helmed by Tim Burton, the allegedly straightforward remake of the first classic film proved visually interesting but utterly aimless in terms of narrative. Gone was the political and social satire that made the 1968 version such a film of the moment.


Perhaps worst of all, Burton tacked on an ending that seemed meant as some kind of strange homage to the shocking and iconic conclusion of the original. Burton’s coda, however, literally made no sense.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved more than a pleasant surprise. A box office smash, it also won critical acclaim. Perhaps of most interest, the film ignited a series of discussions, in cultural outlets ranging from the blogosphere to NPR, about everything from animal rights to our current fascination with pandemics.


It’s worth all the attention it received. This is a great action film with beautifully realized effects, a real boon for those of us who feared a CGI mess. Moreover, it becomes more provocative on a second viewing.  It’s a film about the beginnings of a posthuman future… and virtually none of the humans who watch it will root for their own side.


Sadly, the subtext of the film, and what probably incited the most interest, also seemed to provoke the least discussion. Yes, it put in front of our eyes the atrocities that take place in the name of medical science and under the aegis of vast international corporations who care little for human, or animal, life. Yes, it’s a film that asks us to reconsider every question ever asked about our relationship to the animal world. Yes, it poses important questions about our tendency to anthropomorphize cats and dogs while gorging ourselves on cows and chickens and experimenting tortuously on primates who share about 96 percent of our genetic material.


But, as the iconic battle scene on the Golden Gate Bridge makes clear, this is not a story about changing our behavior. It’s not a story about giving money to the Humane Society or even PETA. It’s a story about evolution’s decision to end us.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes contains some elements that make it seem, in certain respects, like a small film. It is, in part, a story of a family told against a backdrop of scientific experimentation that we, of course, know will become some kind of Frankenstein’s monster. But so much of the focus of the first hour centers on the chimp Caesar and the relationships he builds with his human friends, sympathetic scientist (James Franco) and his father (John Lithgow), that we forget how an evil pharma-corporate firm called Gen-Sy will, maybe, unleash a terrible biohazard into the world.


And of course, they do. The serum that Franco’s character helps develop increases the intelligence of primates but rips human beings apart with an incredibly viral disease strain. Interestingly, however, the story of human hubris leading to apocalyptic catastrophe takes a back seat to Caesar’s growing sense of self-consciousness and injustice. The degree to which we utterly identify with Caesar testifies both to the excellent scripting and the ability of actor Andy Serkis to portray our hairy hero’s fear, angst and eventual defiance through the filter of performance capture technology.


I love the end of this film. I want to keep this spoiler free (if somehow you missed this in theatres) but the last few moments are anything but a Hollywood ending and maintain some of the tension that builds throughout. I also have to mention a deleted scene, included as a DVD extra, that shows one of the new super-chimps picking up a shotgun and learning to use it. I hate the decision to leave this out and leave us with the notion that the apes have only acquired language and the will to fight. This missing scene would have given us a much more powerful introduction to the uprising to come.


Sadly, we received the DVD version of the film and its pretty stripped down in terms of features. A short documentary on the “Mythology of the Apes” shows us all the Easter eggs hidden in the movie, various shout-outs to fans of the original. If you love the classic, you’ll find even more moments that resonant with you than are mentioned here. Unfortunately, this featurette includes far too much footage from the film itself and has that “this is a commercial for the film you just watched” sense that comes with way too many features these days.


A tribute to the work Andy Serkis did in bringing Caesar to life has also been included but concept art or a fuller exploration of the tech behind the making of the film is absent from the DVD release. The Blu-Ray seems to contain more of that material, along with what appears to be a documentary on the lives of actual primates that, hopefully, explores the issue of animal experimentation and animal cruelty, in the way the film does. But again, I’ve only been able to see the DVD release, a shame given the sheer spectacle of this film.


I highly recommend you purchase this in high-def rather than on DVD. It’s a beautifully composed action flick that deserves the 1080p treatment. So much so, in fact, that I will not be satisfied with my reviewer’s copy and plan to pick up the Blu-Ray on my own dime.


Rise of the Planet of the Apes deals with some of the same themes that are showing up in so many of our narratives right now, especially the idea that the world we have created has an inherent instability. We seem to be trying to deal with the fact that our comfortable world is a kind of paper mache sculpture of a thing likely to be swept away by plague or eaten alive by zombies. 


This film deals with the possibility of that sort of a catastrophe but has much the same nihilistic attitude of Charlton Heston’s in the original. Does the human race really need to survive, is its survival of ultimate value? And is there a kind of comfort, perhaps even a sense of exhilaration, in the idea that the world might not end with either a bang or whimper, but with the roar of the jungle?

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W. Scott Poole is a writer and an associate professor of history at the College of Charleston. He's the author of Vampira: Dark Goddess of Horror, a book about the life and strange times of America's first horror host out in September 2014 from Counterpoint/Soft Skull. He is also the author of the award-winning Monsters in America (2011). Follow him on twitter @monstersamerica.


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