Rise of the Planet of the Apes

One of the oldest formulas for stories – maybe even the single oldest, considering The Epic of Gilgamesh and so forth – is of a familiar world that encounters a strange world, and the clash between the two that is resolved at the end. If you think about it, most stories are about this in one way or another – after all, stories are about people who think in different ways, and coming from different worlds is an easy way to explain why they would do that.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about the most literal form of this story formula in a long time: It’s the post-apocalypse. There’s a deadly virus about, that kills people but grants apes superintelligence, and the apes’ civilization is flourishing as the humans’ is falling. There we go – two worlds, which obviously would think in different ways since they’re literally different species. Even with this, though, there’s a twist to the premise – the familiar world is the apes’, and the strange one is the humans’.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the prequel to both this movie and the almost completely unrelated Charlton Heston/Roddy McDowall classics, was a (pun intended) strange animal. It’s probably one of the greatest nostalgia reboots of the last twenty years, because it uses the fact that it’s a prequel to do things differently instead of the same. It began – both production and plot-wise – as an artsy, ponderous sci-fi drama, but turned into a crazy action thriller by the end in the tradition of the originals. It’s a strange mixture, and it wasn’t for everyone, but it got a sequel that’s guaranteed to advance the story and the characters, so it’s all good.

Well, I say “characters”, but really there’s only one real returning character from The Dark Chimp Rises who’s back in Apes v. Humans: Dawn of Justice: Caesar, played by guy-who-you-don’t-recognize legend Andy Serkis. Caesar was the focal point of the first movie, being Patient Zero for the ape plague, but now he’s been promoted to a hero. He’s a tribal leader in a state of cold war with most of the world, putting him in a dramatic spot similar to that of classical heroes like Odysseus, Achilles, Gilgamesh, Leonidas, King Lear and Julius Caesar…

(Oooh, I get it now!)

We really get into Caesar’s head with the early scenes, which are all about how the burgeoning ape society really functions. We understand, and more importantly, identify with the apes, and Caesar in particular, since he, as the smartest of the apes, is in charge.

Caesar is dealing with all the day-to-day problems of governing people who only became self-aware a few years ago, but thing start heating up when a scouting party of apes discover a near-identical scouting party of humans, confirming to each that the other is alive.

This is the gimmick of the movie – you have the apes and you have the humans, and they do pretty much the same things to each other throughout most of the running time, going through near-identical dramatic arcs like a reflected sine wave.

To do that, you need some characters on each side: The hawkish, hotheaded military commander (or com-ape-der…? Yeah, no) who will serve as the worst guy (not a bad guy, this is a really flower-childish ‘we need to understand each other, man’ picture). The humans have Gary Oldman, the apes have a surly bonobo who is apparently Toby Kebbell. Advantage humanity, I’d say. In fact, so much so that the ape version of Gary Oldman shall now be known as Ape Gary Oldman.

Then there’s the caring, more tuned-in and motherly advisor: The humans have a plague doctor who blames herself for every single one of those billions of death because dammit, Contagion warned us! Meanwhile, the apes have an orangutan:

Just the right mix of grotesquely animalistic and amiably human to be constantly fascinating to look at.

That round goes to the apes. As a tie-breaker, lets look at the moody adolescents: Caesar has a son who barely gets two minutes of screentime in the entire thing, while the humans have an emo guy. Honestly, though, the post-apocalypse is one of the few environments where being an emo is not only justifiable but a good coping mechanism. The humans take the rubber match by default, even though the emo teen gets some dumb moments like reading Black Hole, a story about kids who are in a plague. People like characters they can identify with, so of course a kid in a plague wants to read about kids in plagues! Too bad about the part where the plague is sexually transmitted, eh, kid?

I digress. The last player in our little dual-cast drama is Caesar’s human equivalent. He’s played by the dude from Zero Dark Thirty, which is both a good and bad choice. See, he’s perfect in his role, but that role needs to do too much to succeed. He has to be as noble and moral as Caesar is, but at the same time can’t be too interesting or deep, or else people will automatically think he’s the hero – that principle about identification applies to species too! – and it’s an almost impossible line to walk as a scriptwriter. He just ends up boring, is what I’m trying to say here.

So, once these two sets of people have been established, things immediately threaten to blow up. See, all the fuel is about to run out for the human colony, but the only source of power is a disused hydroelectric dam that just so happens to be in the heart of Ape Country.

…Yes, Johnny Depp, I know all about the stopping prospects in Ape Country.

Both Caesar and his human equivalent – President, I guess – realize what a tricky situation this is. Caesar’s solution is to gather every single weapon the apes have and go up to the gates of San Francisco, telling them “We won’t fight you, but we can if we need to”. Literally, tell them. Didn’t you know? Increased intelligence automatically grants you better diction. Just look at Stephen Hawking, Rick of Rick and Morty, or any Jeff Goldblum character!

Seriously, though, the fact that the apes can only just barely speak is a great dramatic device, that shows how smart the movie is under the hood. But more on that later. Right now, the point is that the apes and humans work out an uneasy truce, where President and all his pals can work to get the dam running, with Caesar and his pals supervising. Unfortunately, things almost become violent when Gary Oldman insists on them taking weapons, and the apes just as insistently refuse. We’re supposed to be on the apes’ side here – after all, it’s ultimately in their best interests to kill all humans – and even more so when one of the little group actually does bring a gun, nearly killing Caesar’s son.

Yeah, we get “Damn dirty ape” here, and it really took me out of the story. You remember “Oh yeah, whatever happens, all the humans will die except for Charlton Heston in the future”, and it sort of takes the energy out of it.

Ape Gary Oldman starts to temper the audience’s approval, though, when concludes that the only reasonable thing to do is steal Regular Gary Oldman’s guns and bombs, using them to murder any human who stands in his way. It’s more terrifying than heart-pounding, and I always like a slow burn approach in action movies.

This is when the double-reflex plot starts to really kick in. Since Ape Gary Oldman has gotten his guns, Regular Gary Oldman needs to as well. As President’s cabinet gets the hydroelectric dam up and running, we see his men noticing that some of the guns are gone, and preparing defenses to keep the apes out.

O.G. G.O. himself, though, is busy in the best moment in the movie. See, now the power on, most people are off celebrating that the lights and speaker system are finally on, in the sort of scene that can’t help send minds back to Zion in The Matrix Reloaded. In a vacuum it would probably be a pretty effective moment about showing what these people do with their lives, but sometimes bad movies spread like a mold onto better ones. It’s a pity.

But anyway, best moment in the whole movie. Gary Oldman has no time for partying, so he’s working in his little office when he hears a little chirrup. When everyone looks up from their pockets, we see that it’s actually his own iPad, which is getting power for the first time in ages. What’s his wallpaper? A picture of him with a family, that he cries over.

No wonder the teen is so emo – to have total withdrawal from electronics for what is implied to be almost a decade? I’d start to identify with kids in plagues too!

This is the real hidden intelligence behind the story. As I’ve said earlier, one of the easiest ways to pick a movie apart from a logical perspective is to ask why things happen when they do. Why did the evil plan start at just that time? Why do the teens go to the haunted house? Why does the prophecy say it will take a hundred years? And so on. This moment turns that on its head – it uses something that is happening in the plot and asks “What else would happen now?” and uses that to tell us more about the world and the characters.

And another reason I think it’s the best moment is that this smart moment is immediately followed by a lot of very silly moments. First off, Ape Gary Oldman shoots Caesar and blames the humans for it (ooh, Caesar is betrayed by an advisor! It’s clever because…I don’t know, it’s Shakespeare so it must be!). Then, taking command of the apes, he leads them on a gloriously silly, explosion-filled and bullet-riddled battle. It’s fun and amps up the story, but it does feel kind of out of place compared to everything that happened before. I won’t really say the whole thing goes downhill, since it’s still a good action flick, but it’s like watching two halves of different movies, and personally I liked the first one a lot more.

The second movie, it’s worth noting, is almost entirely about the apes, with only occasional interludes with the humans to show that yeah, man, we’re all the same, y’know? But it starts with the apes storming the gates of the city, capturing humans so they see what it’s like for once, while in the meantime President and his cabinet try to get back to the city. On the way they encounter Caesar, who isn’t dead after all (take that, Shakespeare!), who finds physical and mental succor in James Franco’s abandoned house in the last movie, where he grew up.

In this age of increasingly serialized popular storytelling, there’s a debate on whether or not things should strive to stand completely on their own as a narrative, or expect you to have already consumed other kinds of media. As always, I’m not in favor of completely rigid rules for this, but I definitely tend toward the former argument, and so I’m happy they put this in. If you’ve come into this dry (and I mean completely dry – apparently, there are people out there who think Fury Road is an original intellectual property), the sequence where Caesar shows President and his cabinet home movies of him growing up with James Franco gives some much-needed context that makes him a much more interesting character than he would be otherwise.

For instance, it gives a reason other than “He’s the hero” for him to disagree with Ape Gary Oldman, who sends his ape army riding through the ruined city, killing everyone he can, right down to Caesar’s son (in his second scene! You’d all be complaining if it was a daughter!), breaking the hallowed rule from the original series:

Of course Regular Gary Oldman is having none of it, and starts to muster his troops. Both the humans and the human-sympathizer apes are trapped, but he proves he’s really the human version of Ape Gary Oldman (if you understand that) by ignoring them and instead setting a nondescript skyscraper that’s pretty much the only remaining building in the area to completely explode, wiping out pretty much everyone.

As they get back into the city, Caesar comes across Regular Gary Oldman planting the last of the charges, and he blows himself up pretty much because he has nothing left to do in the story except for including a vague sequel hook about soldiers still being out there who don’t take kindly to any flourishing inhuman civilizations.

And so we come to the great final battle, between Ape Gary Oldman’s forces and the humans, plus Caesar and a few of the better apes. It’s the best action in the movie, since the environment of the ruins of the skyscraper allows for more interesting choreography than we got in the original, and the apes get the opportunity to actually do ape things instead of shooting guns and riding on horseback.

“That’s why they’re called monkey bars…ohshit, I said monkey!

And of course, there’s only one way it can end: Caesar confronts Ape Gary Oldman on top of the ruins of the skyscraper, and he executes him for being a disgrace to all apes everywhere. He gives a pensive final speech to President about how apes and humans are ultimately the same, makes an intense face for all the posters, and cuts to credits, but it feels like there needs to be something more.

This is what I meant about stories standing on their own: With a sequel, this will probably feel like a much better climax for the larger story of the apes – just think what a head-scratching bummer the end of Empire Strikes Back must have felt like back in 1980. But because I like judging these things as self-contained stories, this doesn’t really provide any kind of closure to that, and so it feels like ending on a bum note.

The Planet of the Apes movies have never been a huge cultural touchstone, and so a year later not much has changed in how people think of it, other than “Less”. But it’s a fine picture if you have reason or want to check it out, I suppose. I’ll see you all in a couple years when they come out with the inevitable letdown third sequel.

 

TWO THUMBS UP: The iPad and James Franco bits, the expansion on the original story

THUMBS UP: Everything with the apes, the final action scene

THUMBS DOWN: President

TWO THUMBS DOWN: The treatment of the younger generation, the fact that the word “Ape” will lose all meaning for you for days after seeing the movie

 

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