erik lundegaard

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

WARNING: GO-GO GORILLA SPOILERS

We want the apes to win, don’t we? I didn’t realize that going in. We root for underdogs in movies and the original series began with apes in control and Charlton Heston mute (finally mute), so we root for the humans there. It’s not until the fourth in the series, “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” with Roddy McDowell as Ceasar, son of Cornelius and Zira, the chimp couple who arrived from the future (for more sequels), that we finally get our ape on.

“Rise” is basically “Conquest,” so I should’ve realized where our sympathies would lie. But it goes beyond rooting for the underdog, doesn’t it? We arrive at the theater after another crappy day at the office, if we have an office to go to, and the news is all about the stock market dropping because of the debt in Europe, or the debt in America, or the S&P’s downgrade of the U.S.’s credit rating, with both political parties in the U.S., particularly the uncompromising one (you know), pointing fingers and chattering and pounding their chests, so you’re disgusted to begin with; then in the row in front of you, two slobs, slouched in their seats, knees up against the row in front of them, talk through the trailers and through the beginning of the movie and into the movie, and you think, “Really? You’re going to keep this up? You have so little regard for the rest of us, douchebags, that you treat this theater like it’s your own home entertainment system?”; and all of that just to watch, up on the screen, 30 feet high, pretty boy James Franco playing Will Rodman, supersmart scientist, and former supermodel Freida Pinto—one of the prettiest girls in the world—playing Caroline Aranha, just your run-of-the-mill zoo veterinarian who needs a date, and they’re such lies it makes you want to kick somebody, particularly the two louts who keep talking in front of you, and who force you, halfway through the movie, to change seats, as, on the screen, the apes, the intelligent apes, race through and tear up an office like the office you work in, and a traffic jam like the one you were stuck in, and a zoo full of more dolts and douchebags, full of the slackjawed, popcorn-munching endgame of humanity, and you think, “Yeah, that’s it, end it, wipe it all away. We don’t deserve it anymore. We’ve created crap. C’mon, monkeys, lay it all to fucking waste.”

Or am I projecting?

“Rise” is smarter than “Conquest.” It’s “Conquest” injected with ALZ-112, the serum Dr. Rodman tests on monkeys to better treat Alzheimer’s patients like his father, Charles (John Lithgow).

The movie begins (and ends) in the jungle, as locals flush the monkeys and capture a few, including a smart female chimpanzee who becomes the focus of Dr. Rodman’s experiments. The drug not only makes her smarter, way smarter, it gives the irises of her eyes flecks of green, so she’s dubbed Bright Eyes—just as Zira in the original “Planet of the Apes” dubbed Charlton Heston’s character “Bright Eyes.” This monkey is about the be put on display before the money (not monkey) people when she gets aggressive, attacks her handlers, busts into the cafeteria, into the lobby, then crashes through the window where the money (not monkey) conference is being held. She’s shot to death by an alert guard. And there goes the ALZ-112 funding.

But guess what? Dr. Rodman discovers Bright Eyes wasn’t being aggressive. She’d been pregnant the whole time! And she’d just had her baby! So she was protecting her baby like any mother would!

So shouldn’t Rodman tell his overbearing boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, British and therefore evil), about the baby chimp and save his ALZ-112 project? Or would he then have to admit that he’d had this chimp in his lab for months, testing it every day, and didn’t even know she was pregnant? Tough call.

The baby chimp, a male, also has flecks of green in his irises—ALZ-112 gets passed along, apparently—so Rodman does what any pretty-boy scientist would do when chimps all around him are losing their lives: He brings this one home and raises it like a son. And it is like a son. We watch the chimp, dubbed “Caesar,” grow from sweet boy to mischievous child to moody teen. We watch him watch the world from a round attic window and occasionally get into the action, which inevitably causes problems with Rodman’s rude neighbor Hunsiker (David Hewlett). As he figures out his place, he has questions, which he signs to Rodman. “Am I a pet?” “Where are my mother and father?” Rodman drives him to the lab and tells him the tale. It doesn’t sit well.

Rodman also tests ALZ-112 on his father, who is cured—temporarily, it turns out—but at least he gets his life back for several years. Amazing breakthrough. And who does Rodman tell? Jacobs? The press? The world? Nope. He tells no one. Because that’s not the story here.

The story here is how Caesar, from his attic window, sees the father, Charles, being attacked, or at least manhandled, by the rude neighbor, so Caesar attacks back with frightening rapidity, strength and smarts. He winds up in an animal control shelter, which seems nice, but it’s run by John Landon, played Brian Cox, who experimented on mutants in “X-Men 2,” and his son, Dodge, played by Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in all the “Harry Potter” movies (poor bastard), so you know it’s going to be a hellhole. Which it is. The other monkeys there don’t help. Caesar tries to make friends but has his shirt torn off by the dominant monkey. A firehose is used on him by Malfoy. He pines in his cell and finds a piece of chalk and draws his old attic window on the wall and leans against it. (A very effective moment, actually.) Then he gets angry and begins to plot.

First he becomes the dominant monkey in the yard. Then he realizes he needs smarter companions, smarter apes (welcome to the party, pal), so he escapes, brings back canisters of ALZ-112, and rolls them through the monkey cages. When Malfoy wakes up the monkeys the next morning, there’s very little of the usual chatter. They’re all startlingly calm. They’ve woken up.

The turnabout at the animal shelter is the best scene in the movie and contains many an homage to the original series—including Charlton Heston, as Moses, on a nearby TV, and Malfoy shouting at Caesar “Get your stinkin’ paws off me you damned, dirty ape!”—but it’s more a “2001” moment than anything. Caesar takes the rod-like taser from Malfoy and raises it high in the air like the club in Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey.” The evolutionary moment has arrived. We’re only missing Richard Strauss’ “Also Sprach Zarathustra.”

There’s an epic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, which Caesar sees as the path to the redwood forests of northern California, which is where he wants to be. The bad guys get theirs, a few good monkeys die, and when Dr. Rodman shows up in the Redwoods and tells Caesar, “C’mon, let’s go home,” Caesar, who first spoke with one of the most powerful words in the English language, “No!,” whispers in his former owner/master/father’s ear, “Caesar is home”; then he climbs a tree and imperiously looks out over his domain. Caesar is also smart enough to know, as Dr. Rodman apparently is not, that there is no home anymore; that if they go there, they’ll find the cops and the U.S. Army and the entire international press corps waiting for them. You did WHAT? You made him into WHAT?

Despite my complaints, which include James Franco’s new “nothing” method of acting, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” isn’t a bad summer flick. As for what the apes can tear through and upend in “Apes II”? Here are a few suggestions: 1) the FOX-News studio; 2) a meeting of the Texas Board of Education; 3) a Michele Bachmann and/or Sarah Palin and/or Rick Perry event; 4) the Mall of America; and 5) a couple of douchebags, slouched in their seats, talking through a movie. With humans, really, the possibilities are endless.

—August 11, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard