Summer blockbuster movies often allow the popular imagination to engage metaphorically with topics that aren’t discussed honestly on the editorial page—topics such as IQ, race, and heredity. (Personally, I don’t think it ought to be necessary to spend tens of millions on computer-generated imagery merely to get a few things off your chest, but I realize that’s a minority view.)
The mother lode of sci-fi social commentary has been The Planet of the Apes franchise, now 43 years and seven movies old, and sure to run longer due to the $54-million opening weekend of the intelligent new Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
As Eric Greene noted in his 1998 book Planet of the Apes as American Myth, these films “were the most fun you could have thinking about movies.” The 1968 original, with Charlton Heston as, in effect, an angry black radical protesting the oppression of his (human) race, was more conceptual fun than a barrel of metaphorical monkeys. Besides the obvious notion of apes as The Man, the original Planet schema offers a “second, more complex allegory, which codes white gentile humans as orangutans, white Jews as chimpanzees, and African-Americans as gorillas,” as Greene explained.
Unfortunately, the bombastic original is—excepting Rod Serling’s justly famous ending with the Statue of Liberty near Zuma Beach—more compelling to recall than to re-watch. In turn, the next four movies, which made the Black Power themes even more prominent, came from an era in which sequels had smaller budgets than originals. Still, these cheesy flicks were thought-provoking for Baby Boomer adolescents.
The 1968 Planet is a product of the Rousseauan era of primate research, in which chimps were viewed as smelly but pacifist hippies and thus could be portrayed as liberal intellectuals persecuted by reactionary orangutans. In the 1970s, Jane Goodall finally started to notice the Hobbesian side of her troop at Gombe, who would wage war and castrate their victims.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes from a less naïve age. The husband-wife team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have concocted a well-tooled origins story to replace Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which humans foolishly enslaved primates to toil as domestic servants.
Jaffa and Silver dismissed Ronald Reagan’s assertion in Bedtime for Bonzo that “environment is all important” and “heredity counts for very little.” In contrast to liberal 20th-century beliefs, Rise of the Planet of the Apes assumes that apes are held back by genetically low IQs. (Sure, that’s part of why chimpanzee culture is so atrocious, but they’re also impulsive and selfish. They don’t see much reason to teach any discoveries they make to their fellow apes. Hey, they’re chimps, not chumps.)
James Franco plays a San Francisco geneticist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by testing an IQ-boosting drug on laboratory chimps. (It also pleiotropically lightens their eyes, a concept which sounds borrowed from evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran.)
Franco’s retrovirus turns out to be the first effective No Chimp Left Behind program. He raises Caesar, a genetically engineered genius, at home. But when the little scamp grows into a hulking brute, a court order dispatches him to a San Bruno shelter. Like Bull Connor in Birmingham, a guard (played by Tom Felton, who played the nasty Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series) turns a fire hose on Caesar. In the primate prison’s yard, the poor nerdy chimp is terrified by an inmate gang, perhaps modeled upon San Quentin’s Black Guerilla Family.
Rise turns into a prison-escape movie almost as good as Toy Story 3. We watch the radicalized Caesar make himself, through sheer smarts, the con boss who takes over the Black Gorilla Family and kills the bull.
Admittedly, Rise’s human actors are lame: James Franco, often acclaimed for his busy schedule, looks tired. Freida Pinto (the pretty girl from Slumdog Millionaire) won’t make you forget that her name sounds like a character from Idiocracy.
But the digital effects are good enough (although at $93 million, this is only a mid-budget movie). Moreover, Andy Serkis, who acted out Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is once again superb in a motion-capture role as Caesar.
Best of all, Jaffa and Silver do a remarkable job by getting about 80 percent of their monkey movie to make sense. For example, the climactic battle is set on the Golden Gate Bridge, the West Coast equivalent of the original movie’s Statue of Liberty. Yet that setting makes tactical as well as symbolic sense. How can apes elude police riflemen in a helicopter? Well, where else in America is more likely to be adventitiously shrouded in fog?
Make sure to stick around during the credits when a brilliantly concise sequence tracking a new “Patient Zero” reveals that this prequel has been an AIDS metaphor all along.
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