Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a triumph of intelligent film making. The plot is interesting and well executed, the direction is fast paced and engaging without being too heavy handed, and the apes are brought to life with astonishing realism. In fact, the brilliance of the apes’ characterization, largely due to the presence of the “performance capture” actor Andy Serkis, is so compelling that the best parts of the film center on the apes’ captivity and the way in which they interact with each other.
These scenes are reminiscent of the opening sequence of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In both films, language is unavailable to the simians so the story has to be told through mimesis rather than exposition, a distinction to which few directors nowadays pay sufficient attention. The obvious criticism of the film is that the human characters are rather shallow and one dimensional in comparison with the apes.
But perhaps the most remarkable thing about this film is that it deals explicitly, and favorably, with ideas of imperialism and fascism. The ape who leads the simian revolt is named after Julius Caesar by the father of the scientist who rescues him. The circumstances of Caesar’s birth provide a few subtle references to this identification.
There are contradictory stories about the reasons for the naming of the Roman Caesar family. One is to do with birth by Caesarian section, which at the time was occasioned by the death of the mother in childbirth. In the film, Caesar’s mother dies shortly after giving birth, although there is no suggestion of a Caesarian section.
Another reason given for the naming of the Caesars is that it is from oculis caesiis, which refers to the bright grey eyes of an ancestor. In the film, Caesar’s mother is named Bright Eyes. Admittedly, this is also a reference to the first Planet of the Apes film where Charlton Heston’s character is called Bright Eyes, but as the film progresses the symbolism becomes less oblique.
As mentioned before, the best parts of the film feature the apes in captivity where their social communication is shown through physical interaction. In this section, Caesar is “imprisoned” in an ape sanctuary against his, and his owner’s, will. He quickly learns which apes are the alpha males through their aggressive behavior. One of the apes is so large and aggressive that he is kept behind bars and is not allowed to interact with the other apes at all.
Whilst captive, Caesar learns how to unlock the cages that the apes are kept in. He cleverly demonstrates to the alpha males that he has this power of giving freedom. This higher intelligence, combined with an unashamed use of violence, causes the other alpha males to submit to Caesar as the new leader.
The fact that we are witnessing apes behaving in this way allows the film makers to depict the reality of power relationships without tagging on the usual liberal caveats that would litter any other film about such a subject. Even the most brutal gangster film will show the pressures, or other problems, of the wives or girlfriends. In Apes, the females are not “actors,” as such, in the narrative at all. The only female ape who has a role to play is Caesar’s mother, and her role in the story is to give birth. In this sense the film can be read as exemplifying Nietzsche’s maxim, “A man should be brought up for war, and a woman for the recuperation of the warrior: all else is folly.”
Due to the brilliant physicality of Serkis and the other ape actors, all of this feels perfectly natural. The central conceit, or sleight of hand, of the director is the use of apes to tell harsh truths about humans. The audience is willing to watch the depiction of the power play amongst the apes with a certain sense of remove. If these were human characters then clearly the film would be misogynist, shallow, etc.
Whilst incarcerated, Caesar makes friends with an orangutan who learned sign language when he was kept in a circus. Caesar explains his game plan, his political ideology if you like, to his new friend. Taking a stick Caesar snaps it in half and explains that a single ape is weak. Taking a bundle of sticks he shows how hard it is to snap and he explains that apes together are strong. This, of course, is the symbol of the fasces, and it is the defining symbol of the apes’ revolt. The apes who have submitted to Caesar follow him with a fierce loyalty and willingly kill and die for him, and for their new cause. This cause is not simply freedom, still less democracy or other such daft platitudes, but “home.”
In his younger days Caesar was taken to a national park where he climbed the redwood trees with exhilaration. When the apes escape they do not embark on a wild rampage but instead head for this forest to start a new society. The exciting climax to the film involves a battle between the apes and the police on the Golden Gate Bridge which the apes must cross to reach their destination. Happily, the apes win, and Caesar crosses the Rubicon to found his New Imperium.
Throughout the film we overhear snippets of news programs concerning the first manned mission to Mars, whose fate occasioned the scenario for the original Planet of the Apes film. In a nod to the sort of overreaching arrogance that the film finds in humanity the space ship is named Icarus. But it is not only for such unnatural hubris that man is condemned. The drug that grants intelligence to the apes was developed to cure Alzheimer’s disease, and senility is really the keynote for humanity as depicted here. We are a species which has reached its natural conclusion, the film seems to tell us.
It is emphasized that the Alzheimer’s cure is pursued by the drug company purely because of its commercial value. Unfortunately, it has a fatal side effect that causes death in weak, senile, man, but not in the hardier apes. As the apes start their incipient warrior society we see, in a wonderful coda, an infected commercial airplane pilot heading across the globe spreading his fatal germs to all of humanity.
This ending is shown by following the flight path on a digital display. As each flight ends, several more depart in a web of green LCD encircling the globe. Despite our arrogant command of technology we are still subject to nature. For me, the total annihilation of a weak and hubristic humanity to make way for a new, healthy, warrior species made Rise of the Planet of the Apes the ultimate feel-good movie.
1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, translated by Graham Parks (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), 57