Rise of the Planet of the Apes, 2011.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt.
Starring James Franco, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, Tyler Labine and Freida Pinto.
A prequel to the Planet of the Apes. In an attempt to cure Alzheimer’s disease, humanity creates the conditions for their own downfall. The apes rise against them.
This is an odd one. Sympathising with a different species is difficult. Particularly when their oppressors are your own broskis: humans. But this is the story that Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells. Through genetic experimentation on apes as test subjects, in an attempt to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, Will Rodman (James Franco) creates a drug that rapidly restores the cognitive functions of the brain. After his experiments are closed down after a bit of monkey business (self-lol), he rescues one of the apes, Caesar (a motion capture Andy Serkis), from being put down. At home, he continues his work and it is here we see the cause for his determination. His father (John Lightlow) suffers from the degenerative disease. Its name is hardly ever referenced. You know from tracking shot through their family home, where certificates and awards for musical excellence decorate the walls, but all you can hear are the struggling, staccato notes of Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.
Rodman’s secret experiments on Caesar are working – the chimp performs excellently in the I.Q. tests – so Franco tests the drug on his father. It works, but only temporarily.
This is the evidence Franco needs to restart the clinical testing again. The drug he used on his father was named Virus 112. It was rejected by antibodies, because the drug was just that – a virus. There are echoes of War of the Worlds here, where the invading alien forces were brought down by the common cold. So the company for which Rodman works, Gyn-Sys (see what they did there), begins testing Virus 113. The apes’ immune systems can cope with such a drug. Humans might not be so resistant. And then there’s the version number ‘113’. It indicates there were 112 previous versions of this drug. That’s a lot of trials, and a lot of primate test subjects. No wonder the apes are pissed.
And that’s where the film triumphs, in its details. The simple name of ‘Virus 113’ opens up so many possibilities in the imagination. The film never forces the details’ meanings upon you. The meaning has to click into place by itself, and is all the stronger for it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes needs the details, too. The main characters, after the opening third, are almost primarily primates, who don’t talk much. It places a great emphasis on visual story telling. Exposition and character development occur almost entirely without speech, which makes the whole process a lot more intimate. Such things can’t be rushed. The writers don’t have the option to throw in a line of explanation – they need to show it through actions. It forces the film’s pace to slow down. It’s all about the slow burn. Baked beans taste much better done on a low hob setting.
The best example of this is not in Serkis’ subtle motion capture performance, but in one throwaway moment on a helicopter. Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), the head of Gen-Sys, is yelling at a policeman about taking down the apes. “Shoot them all!” he seems to shout. You can’t hear him, though, because he’s on a helicopter. Helicopters are loud. The policeman motions for him to press the intercom button, and then you hear his words. Such finely observed details pushes your disbelief away a little further. It just makes it, you know, seem more real.
Another example is in a similarly throwaway piece of dialogue. The middle third of the film has Caesar incarcerated in an ape enclosure. It effectively becomes a prison film, where Caesar must win over his new inmates and fend off the sadistic prison guard Dodge (Tom Felton) and the enclosure’s owner John Landon (Brian Cox). As Roger Ebert noted in his review, never trust an organisation run by Brian Cox. At one point, which you could easily glance over, Tom Felton calls Cox ‘dad’, and all of a sudden the entire dynamic of how that enclosure is run makes sense. That’s why the cruel Felton works there. It also gives a later shot, of Landon seeing Dodge on a piece of security footage, a lot more weight.
So, before all the prison stuff, Caesar is one of the Rodmans. They eat dinner together at the table. He has his own room upstairs. They go on family outings to the park and have picnics. He’s dressed up in trousers and a jumper. But then, one day in the park, he sees another family walking their dog. More specifically, he sees the collar around the dog’s neck. “Am I a pet?” he asks Rodman in his gentle sign language. No, of course not. “Then what am I?” This is the exact moment the wheels of revolution are put into motion. The atmosphere is different after that. It’s a little wrought. He’s become conscious of his own existence, his self.
And with that, the apes find a voice. And, boy, do they rise.
365 Days, 100 Films
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