Each week in The Moviegoer, Nick Olson examines new and upcoming films.
Just when it appeared Captain America was going to be the critical “surprisingly-good-summer-blockbuster!” champion for 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes swung in and snatched the title. Monkeying around the lines of both prequel and reboot, of both dystopia and apocalypse, Rise has critics going bananas over its CGI achievements, and, more particularly, the performance put in by Andy Serkis as “Caesar” — the ape who is also the film’s central character. The praise for these elements is well-deserved: Rise is technically well-done and is, in these ways, an entertaining pleasure to watch.
Yet, rather than inspiring fruitful self-reflection, this dystopocalypse instead cast a malaise over me. And that is the primary problem I have with Rise: its apparent criticisms of human beings are too hollowed out to be humane. The film’s analogical vision needs focused, because while it is straining hard, it is generally seeing one-dimensionally.
The boon which sets the apes’ rise in motion is animal mistreatment — whether it is using animals as tests to further medicinal research, or Caesar’s imprisoned existence at Tom Landon’s “primate facility.” While humans’ treatment of animals is certainly a good barometer for how humane we are, the film backs off of the franchise’s usual redemptive possibilities in depicting humans who act like animals, and animals who act like inhumane humans. This big-picture reversal never really gains traction, because the lines between human and animal are blurred beyond recognition.
The film’s confusion sets in after “Caesar” has masterfully and intriguingly created dominance over the other apes in the facility. This premise offers a frontier of possibilities to showcase the wrong-headed desire for power via cruelty. In the end of the film, however, while Caesar’s free-wheeling and intelligent army of apes is overthrowing the humans and facilities which were responsible for their mistreatment, he regularly dissuades the other apes from killing people. On this level, the “Caesar” narrative simply doesn’t add up. Caesar is less like Julius and more like the leader of the Humane Society. The film seems content to continue to build good-will toward “Caesar” and anti-sentiment toward humans.
By the end of Rise, a large gorilla has committed an act of self-sacrifice, and the humans are a mere afterthought. Ironically and regrettably, Will Rodman’s (James Franco) quest to cure his Alzheimer’s-stricken father is easily forgettable. And so, too, must have been Rodman’s humane raising of Caesar, because Caesar would rather control his fellow human-apes than pal around with the humans anymore. By this point, Rodman’s humanity is somewhere in the shadows of Caesar’s.
In the end of the film, Caesar tells Rodman that he is content to live in the redwoods. A sweet ending — the human-apes are freed from the cruel humans. But, wait, there’s more good news: it is implied that the virus which was used to create Caesar’s Humane Society is also the virus that will lead to the demise of those pesky humans. Vive la Revolution!
(Wait, is this also the implicit resolution?).