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Mike Wilmington

By Mike Wilmington

Wilmington on Movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

 (Three Stars)
U.S.: Rupert Wyatt, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, latest chapter in an old franchise, shows us a story we too easily forget, or maybe one that we never really knew: how it all began, how an imprisoned, persecuted and seemingly rag-tag army of CGI chimpanzees rose up, found their leader (our great hero Caesar), how they threw off their shackles, unlocked their cages, overcame their vicious keepers (including sneery Draco Malfoy, or Tom Felton himself), and then stormed through San Francisco, an unstoppable, swarming tide of apes unleashed. Yip!


Ah, what a day that was! On and on they came: the chimps and the orangutans and the mighty gorilla, unlocking cages and emptying primate labs and terrifying unsuspecting zoo-patrons, while streaming down the streets, leaping along the roofs, and swinging through the trees, until finally, with the grim determination of the heroes of Troy, of Thermopylae, of Gettysburg, those fearless apes — our ancestors, my children — made their stand, even as a herd of dangerous looking human police, heavily armed, stood poised to block their way on the final leg of their journey in the middle of Golden Gate Bridge. What a terrible, awful glorious day! The wind rose. Helicopters hovered. Automatic rifles click-clicked. And facing it all, eyes calm, lips curling in chimp reflection, was our leader, Caesar, and the mighty hero warriors behind him, and the greatest hero of all on that terrible and glorious day, the Gorilla!


Did we win, my children? Well, how the hell do you think you got that 1968 hit movie Planet of the Apes and four sequels? What do you think inspired that film epic, the movie that the human Franklin Schaffner directed from the human Rod Serling‘s script of the the human Pierre Boulle’s novel, the one with human-and-a-half Charlton Heston yelling “Take your stinking paws off me!“ (A science fiction classic if there ever was one and our revenge for all those King Kongs).

And how do you think we got all those Planet of the Apes sequels (Beneath, Escape, Conquest, Battle), and that failed attempt (by Tim Burton ) to restart the series with Mark Wahlberg, and the programs on TV and all those damned Planet of the Apes plastic toys you keep waving and bouncing on the floor and that some of you are even trying to eat. Of course we won, you little chimp hellions! You think Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans are nothing but special effects! You think Chuck Heston is chopped liver?

Caesar. I Remember Caesar. We won that day! And we’ll win again if they send us up to Washington D.C. and turn us loose on those over-dressed, phony tea-sipping idiots who took over Congress just as we took over the zoo. (But we had dignity: we didn’t piddle all over the zoo afterwards.)

Yes….Yip, Yip, Yip…Your grandfather remembers…Those were the days…What’s that, my child? Why am I crying? It’s nothing… I was just remembering our other ancestor, and spiritual leader, Nim Chimpsky of Project Nim and what happened to him…For a moment It made me sad.

That was reality, a different thing, a different place. I’ll tell you about it some day, my children, because of course, we‘re not real…We’re all of us just dreams. But it made me melancholy…Nim…If only you could have been with us that day!

Curl up now, my grandchildren, spit those little Roddy McDowall toys out, like good little apes. and lets watch it all together. My favorite movie, execept for Project Nim: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, starring James Franco and Freida Pinto and John Lithgow and Brian Cox and David Oyelowo, and our hero and brother Andy Serkis, the human (is he human?) who plays Caesar. We’ll watch my favorite scene and play it twice, three times: the scene in the Muir Woods, when Caesar swings up the tree branches, higher and higher, whirling and jumping from branch to branch, up and up and up, to the very top…

Actually, I liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes very much — even though it’s obviously better directed (and acted) than it is written. The best of Rise is so damned wonderful, and the worst of it so damned silly, that it’s sometimes hard to believe, as you watch it, that you’re in the same movie you were in ten minutes or so ago.

Still, the very best scenes — usually ones involving Caesar the lead ape (as acted by Andy Serkis), with his piercing dark eyes and sometimes poignant, sometimes chilling quietude, a leader of the revolt that we know will eventually take over the planet — are among the best scenes in any blockbuster this summer, or for several summers.

I liked so much of Rise that I‘m willing to forgive or ignore that rushed ending, the underdone script, the sometimes silly plot twists. Movies after all, are a visual art as much as a dramatic one, and this movie has some visual miracles for us: The CGI that allows the moviemakers to create that army of apes, and most of all to the effects that let Sirkis, in performance capture, help create that wonderful illusion of a chimp, Caesar. They‘re truly astonishing, immersing, often beautiful, and worth any ticket.

The film’s scenes are sometimes moving too, especially the two-or-three-cornered scenes with James Franco (I promise: no Oscar show jokes) as pharmaceutical scientist Will Rodman, who’s trying to develop an Alzheimer’s vaccine or drug, and John Lithgow as Will’s Alzheimer‘s-stricken father, pianist-teacher Charles, who can‘t play Bach any more (and then suddenly can), and with Caesar the chimpanzee, their secret house guest (rescued from an experiment gone wrong). These sequences are sometimes very emotional, as with the exchange of glances that pass between Caesar and the Rodmans at various times in the story. Or the moment when Caesar gently reaches over, when Charles, confused, holds his fork wrong at a meal, and the chimpanzee switches it around for him.

The Golden Gate Bridge standoff comes without enough buildup, but it’s a stunning action scene, and the big stunt with the gorilla and the helicopter is a real rouser. And when Caesar says — well, I won’t tell you what he says, but it’s as memorable as anything out of E.T. or Lassie. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie, a very good movie at times. It’s just not a great movie. But it has great stuff. Sometimes script weaknesses aren’t that important.

There’s a clever spin to the story’s beginning though, especially since almost everyone who sees this will know not only how it will probably come out, but how all the subsequent events may probably play out as well. Here, Jaffa and Silver imagine Will working on his Alzheimer’s cure, called ALZ 112, a drug that radically improves brain power (Limitless, anyone?), sees the project abandoned by Will‘s greed-crazed boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), after Bright Eyes seemingly runs berserk all the way from her cage to a board meeting. (Actually she‘s trying to protect her child).

The project is abandoned in disgrace (ironically like Project Nim in the current documentary) and 12 of the experimental chimps are put down. But Will is persuaded to save the 13th: Bright Eyes’ little son, Caesar. He takes him home, still works secretly on ALZ 112, and gives the drug to His father Charles, who can suddenly play Bach and Debussy again, and to Caesar, whose intellect jumps enormously.

Absurdities accumulate. How does Will manage to sneak out Caesar and the drug and work on them for so many years, without anyone noticing, and without him being excited enough to bring the drug to somebody’s attention for all that time? And why does the love interest Freida Pinto, of Slumdog Millionaire, as Caroline the veterinarian, show up so late?

Somehow it doesn’t matter. Some how all the short cuts and implausibilities of the script are beaten down — not completely but enough — by the sheer brilliance and panache of this movie‘s visual realization, by director Wyatt, cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (of the Lord of the Rings Trilogy) and production designer Claude Pare, and by the power and brilliance of Serkis (our old pal, the Gollum), and the splendor and exhilaration of the scenes where the camera follows “him” as “he” leaps from room to room at Will’s place or from tree to tree in Muir Woods.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes reminds you of Project Nim in other ways. We begin with Caesar in all his glory, the human’s favorite, just as we had Nim in all his glory in the first act of Project Nim. Then, grimly, Caesar, like Nim, hurts or menaces a human (though Nim‘s attack is a mystery, and we know Caesar was rushing to the aid of the threatened Charles). And he‘s incarcerated (like Nim) in a grim, sad second act. Caesar is persecuted by a brutal keeper (Felton), ignored by a brutal manager (Brian Cox), and turns naturally to his fellow apes. Nim, we feel, remains an exile all the rest of his life, his potential wasted. Caesar rises up and carries the other apes to CGI glory with him.

They’re different. But that’s because Project Nim is a documentary, a window on the truth, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes is movie science fiction, a window on a dream. That’s what we usually buy at the movies: a fantasy of empowerment. Project Nim is reality, a different thing, a different place. If we can just get out of this cage, maybe we’ll find it.

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7 Responses to “Wilmington on Movies: Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

  1. Plinko says:

    How the F*** did you get on the front page of Google News? You can’t write at all. “A unstoppable, swarming tide”? Really? Hope your server breaks.

  2. Plinko says:

    Oh, NVM. You’re gone now. Apparently somebody at Google actually tried to read this article.

  3. loved it says:

    I just took my kids 9 and 12 to see it. During the pg 13 horror movie previews, I felt like I’d made a mistake. But I hadn’t. This movie absorbed us and kept us absorbed from the beginning to the end. Caesar’s evolution into a high functioning creature of wisdom, humanity (yes humanity), and honor is amazing to behold. This movie’s going to be enjoyed by many of us who will enjoy rooting against the humans, except for the handful who respect and/or appreciate the dignity of animals. Five Stars.

  4. David Poland says:

    Wow, “Plinko,” your anonymous assholeness vs Wilmington, an award-winning veteran critic who’s written for major paper for over 20 years. Hmmmm… “you can’t write at all.” Genius.

  5. beatriz says:

    The movie was very good. Serkis made so many of Caesar’s scenes very moving and emotional.

  6. John Molina says:

    I’m an old fan of the first five and the short-lived TV series. I very much liked RISE–it wasn’t cold and distant like the 2001 re-imagining. And I failed to see any “silly” scenes as Mr. Wilmington describes. I suppose the one shot with Caesar on horseback was over-the-top and could have been deleted or handled differently.

  7. Yeah..I’m thinking that James Franco deserves a lot better than this. I liked it, but the plot was silly at times.


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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon