The best movies you never see coming. Into the Age of Anxiety comes this redux of the familiar Planet of the Apes series which relies heavily on that familiarity as it charges forward into uncharted territory. That territory is part breathtaking technology, part human self-loathing for what we’ve done, who we’ve become and our own despairing hopelessness about our future, and part rumination of the animal within: it all vibrates and quakes in this, one of 2011’s best films.
Never underestimate the element of surprise. Expectations weren’t running high — the thinking was it would be as campy as the old Planet of the Apes movies or worse, as bad as the Tim Burton one. What most weren’t expecting, of course, was that the Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be so character driven: because the technology is now seamless, there is very little separation between our awe and our emotional reaction. But still, with a movie like this there will always be those who refuse to take it seriously because technology is scary, which of course, is part of the film’s central theme.
The reason to see this movie is marvel at what we can now do with motion capture if you have the right actor (Andy Serkis) and the right FX (WETA), and a director (Rupert Wyatt) knows how to tell a good story; it’s almost shocking, for instance, how long it takes the movie to get going. It takes its time without rushing the audience headlong into the action. We get little hints of it here and there but at some point it sinks in that we’re not going to get the non-stop action and violence to which our ADD culture has become accustomed. So the audience dials it down, sits back and absorbs this odd character Caesar.
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes out the same year as Project Nim, and a year or so after a big chimp bit off a woman’s face. Project Nim is a documentary about animal experimentation gone wrong — this idea that humans could somehow domesticate a chimp and teach him sign language proved that domesticity, the forced nature of suppression, isn’t something you can teach at birth, but rather, something that must be bred out of primates. Nim could not help his animal within. He did not have reason. But it’s perhaps more useful to look at what Nim did have rather than what he didn’t have. And that is what is heightened in the chimps who evolve with the help of a drug in the film.
Apes freak out humans because they are so like us and yet so different. They are the closest thing to us — separated, in some cases, by an astonishing 5% difference between us and chimps. They reveal what we all bury every day: sexual impulses, exposed rage. The animal in us has long been diverted underground but at our core we are still primal and we are apes too. What divides us from them, that 5% difference, is about standing upright and using our much bigger brains. If you study evolution you’ll know that nothing happens that cannot happen: we have bigger brains that can’t get any bigger because of the size of the human pelvis. The size of the human pelvis can’t get any bigger because then we could not walk upright. We needed to walk upright so that we could run from predators and carry our young. These are all just theories as to why humans evolved the way they did and why chimps went the way they did.
No one knows if chimps might evolve due to an environmental factor or a mutation in another million years. They might. And part of that evolution could be intelligence and walking upright. Dolphins, dogs or whales could also evolve. We already know elephants are a lot smarter than any of us ever realized. It is only our own ignorance and narcissism that prevents us from really looking and seeing what animals really are.
The film is infused with our terror and uncertainty about the world we’ve built for ourselves. There is a sense that we’ve taken the hand we’ve been dealt — a hefty hand, six million years or so of evolution — and royally fucked things up. Most of the country is on medication to curb depression, even children. The truth is that our technology is moving much faster than we can manage and while we’re living longer we’re also worried about future – a future that is seeming less and less hopeful as time goes on.
The same kind of distrust and anxiety was woven through the late ’60s and ’70s — so it’s not surprising that their apocalyptic view still resonates. Things are even more tense in 2011 because we really don’t know what will mean the end of the human race though many of us are starting to think it won’t be too far off – could be a super virus, could be nuclear war, could be global warming, could be … cell phones. We just don’t know. And we live with this white noise every day.
It’s quite something to find yourself more moved by a mocap ape driven internally by the master, Andy Serkis, than by any of the live action performances in any film so far this year. It was surprising how much he stuck with me long after the film came to an end and even into the night. It is the careful consideration of his own experience that makes this something exceptional. His emotional array is spectral. At no point do we not buy that these apes have gained intelligence, or had their own intelligence enhanced. At some point the Academy is going to have to give Serkis an Oscar for what he can do with this medium. They have to catch up with it eventually, though that could be a long time coming because the Academy is driven by actors and actors don’t take kindly to the idea that they can be replaced, enhanced, controlled.
Half of the exhilaration here is the director’s sleight of hand. It isn’t so much that the apes are faithfully rendered and seemingly real — so real you can’t believe you are not watching reality — it’s how he keeps the action moving. It’s that the director has such a command of the pace and the action, the film only slows down when we must head back into the human world and follow those stories. But any time it’s on the apes it exists in startling rapid-fire time. It’s as if every time an ape turns its head something falls off the shelf.
What’s most frightening about it in the end is how it reminds us that we’ve trapped even ourselves in a prison of our own making. When the apes decide they’ve had enough, something in us makes us wonder what would it take before we too have had enough?
**So, you will wonder, does The Rise of the Planet of the Apes have a shot at a Best Picture nomination? With Telluride, Venice, London and Toronto coming up it’s hard to imagine it won’t be wiped away by the Big Oscar Movies. If the Academy were truly a forward thinking bunch, which we know they aren’t, it would absolutely be seriously considered. But one must always remember that it’s like Thanksgiving. You have to pick the movie that everyone can get and tolerate. It isn’t about finding the best; it never has been. But a number one vote is a vote that comes from love. If they love it, they will vote for it. Hopefully they can overcome their genre prejudice with something like this. The key will be to celebrate the director. It’s not often that a movie comes out of nowhere like this — so the element of surprise is something they have in their favor.