Alzheimer's and Other Troubles with Memory in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

Rise of the Planet of the Apes blends past, present and future, bringing 1968 into 2011 into 3978. But apes cannot conquer Earth without conquering memory, first.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, Tom Felton, David Hewlett, Chelah Horsdal, Brian Cox, John Lithgow
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
US Release Date: 2011-08-05

It’s appropriate that the drug that leads to the ape uprising, as well as the destruction of humanity, was one designed to cure Alzheimer's disease. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, above all else, a movie about and reliant upon memory. Like the drug, it’s about forced recollection: the film fights to jolt the viewer’s cognizance, to make sure the viewer doesn’t forget.

In this seventh, yet first, Planet of the Apes film, Dr. Will Rodman –- played by James Franco -– tests an experimental brain-mending medication on Chimpanzees. The drug has tremendous results, making the apes smarter, and calculating. At first, the outcome is miraculous, then, it is horrifying. Interestingly, despite their fury, the apes are not made out to be the bad guys. Viewers sympathize with Caesar -- the chimp who starts off as Rodman’s hyper-intelligent pet but then leads the uprising -- and eventually root for him because his oppressors are so oppressive.

Still, Caesar isn’t the hero like George Taylor (played by Charlton Heston) is the hero of the original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes. The reason for this draws back to recollection: as a viewer, we already know what’s going to happen. The steps may not be clear, but Caesar has to escape, has to make the other apes intelligent, and has to go on a rampage. The plan is known in advance, as well as the fact that while the apes may be fighting for their freedom now, they will soon rule over humans (us) as masters over slaves. No epilog is needed. By the end of the film, the Earth is still Earth. It hasn’t been transformed into the Planet of the Apes, but it will be, and we know it.

Nonetheless, the filmmakers did a triumphant job making the Rise of the Planet of the Apes suspenseful. The movie is, of course, full of references to the other Apes movies, but even as the beginning to a franchise that began 40 years ago, it works well as a distinct feature.

“We felt from the beginning we need to create a story that could stand on its own and totally separate from the Planet of the Apes series, but we wanted to pay honor to the originals,” screenwriter Rick Jaffa told the Los Angeles Times, Hero Complex blog. “We tried to do that in various ways – in winks and nods – but on a bigger level, we put a great amount of effort in building from the mythology of the earlier movies.”

More than just serving as an origin story, or prologue to an epic saga, Rise of the Planet of the Apes spreads its tendrils (a feature that apes do not actually have) in through the whole franchise, creating a cyclical web that often falls back upon itself. This does more than just adhere to a “mythology”; it also cements Rise of the Planet of the Apes into a series that has become ingrained in American popular culture. By gripping on to the other Apes films, the new version assures its place in cultural history and thereby assures its immortality.

The original Planet of the Apes film, along with its many sequels, belongs to American society. Over time, the movie has planted itself in cultural consciousness, so much so that it now belongs to everyone who is part of American culture. Popular culture is self-sustaining, so when the original movie, thanks to its ripe themes, became a sensation it began to be replicated and referenced over and over. With each sequel, and with every Planet of the Apes joke in The Simpsons or wherever, the first Planet of the Apes film gets more embedded into the lexicon of pop-culture.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes uses the present to show a past. It is the past for Taylor and for the Apes, who are in our future, and so is a history text from 1,000 years in the future. (An ape philosopher even quotes scenes from this movie in Escape from the Planet of the Apes.) But outside of the story arch, it is also a look back into the '60s. To be relevant today, and to be relevant a mere 40 years from now, the movie needs to recall the themes that made the original Planet of the Apes so significant.

There is a scene in Rise of the Planet of the Apes where Tom Felton, playing a sociopathic primate compound employee, blasts Caesar with a hose. It's a reference to the original movie, in which Taylor gets blasted with a powerful hose by his gorilla captures. But the scene with Taylor is itself a reference to the civil rights demonstrations that were sweeping the United States at the time of Planet of the Apes’ release. Indeed, the original movie is a social commentary on racism and American society, which is certainly a reason for its lasting legacy. By reaching back to 1968, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is giving itself a future.

The 2001 Tim Burton/Mark Whalberg Planet of the Apes remake failed because it didn’t attempt to connect to the 1968 original. Instead, Burton sought to start-over. As a remake, the movie would have to replace the original in American cultural consciousness to be successful, where as Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as a prequel, merely has to remind viewers of the original. Without the social climate of 1968, the 2001 film’s overtones failed to really connect with the audience. But in 2011, a connection as simple as a water cannon does enough to call back the once-important social themes in their original context.

Those with a basic knowledge of American popular culture will appreciate Rise of the Planet of the Apes; indeed, one of the best things about watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that the more cultural knowledge one has, the better the movie becomes. Actually, the better the whole franchise becomes. As both the first and last Planet of the Apes movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has an interesting relationship with the other movies, making the franchise a cyclical, history-repeating saga. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the apes win freedom from their human oppressors, but as the viewer knows, they then become the oppressors as human society weakens. Then mankind gains its freedom from the apes -- also in a bloody uprising –- in Beneath the Planet of the Apes and then enslaves the apes, who then must revolt against mankind by the time Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is finished. The struggle goes on and on.

While we do sympathize with the apes in a few of these films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes foreshadows the apes’ hegemony. When organizing his fellow caged chimps, Caesar shows them how one stick easily breaks, but a bundle of sticks can withstand intense pressure. This is an unsubtle reference to Mussolini and the Italian fascists, whose symbol was a bundle of sticks for that very reason. (The word “fascist” comes from the Latin word “fascis”, which means bundle.) The scene gives us a glimpse into how the ape society eventually becomes institutionally racist, as America has been throughout its brief history.

The blending of past, present and future continues throughout the film. Charlton Heston makes three appearances in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The first appearance is in the form of a chimpanzee. Caesar’s mother, who is the mother of the ape revolution, is nick-named “Bright Eyes”, the same name that chimp zoologists give Taylor when he is first captured. The second time Heston appears, it’s as himself: His film 1965 film The Agony and the Ecstasy is playing for the apes’ “enrichment” in the primate kennel. The third is as George Taylor, when a news report says that the Icarus, the space mission Taylor was on when he traveled 2,000 years into the future and crash landed on the Planet of the Apes, has been lost in space. So while the apes are revolting in present time, George Taylor is arriving in the future, about to be taken hostage by the apes. And even in the present, he is simultaneously space explorer, caged animal, and tool of oppression.

Also, two of Heston’s (or are they Taylor’s?) most famous lines are repeated in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, both by Felton, but with inverse meanings. “It’s a madhouse,” is used to mock the penned apes, instead of being a desperate prisoner’s cry, while “Take your stinking paw off me you damned dirty ape,” is said by the aggressor to the abused, rather than the other way around, although it is not-coincidentally said when the prisoner (Caesar) says his first words.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an exciting, fun movie and the winner of a generally lack-luster summer blockbuster season. But without the cultural memory of the 1968 Planet of the Apes movie, it's little more than a summer blockbuster. Without an obsession with memory, none of the Planet of the Apes movies could exist, because it was an Alzheimer’s cure that sparked everything. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has to connect to the other films, or else it will disintegrate into history. The remembrance of the past is the only way for it to move, like Icarus through a time-warp, into the future.

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