NOTE: Before I get to today's article, I must beg your indulgence for a moment. A good friend of mine has set up a page through which donations can be made to help fight the famine in Somalia. The donations are secured by Verisign and will send the money to Action Against Hunger, a reputable international nonprofit organization. My friend is so committed that she is actually fasting in solidarity with those suffering in Africa. While few of us can be as hardcore as that (I certainly can't), many of us are capable of donating at least a few dollars to this crucial cause. If you can, follow this link and give what you're able to. I'll be personally very grateful.
And now, on to Rise of the Planet of the Apes!
There’s a very important chord in music theory called the dominant seventh. This is a major chord built on the fifth note of a given major scale, with another note (the “seventh”) tacked onto the end of it. When prepared properly, this chord – at least as we in the world of Western music have been trained to hear it – wants very much to resolve to another chord, the “tonic” or home chord. For instance, if you are playing a piece in C Major (built off the chord C-E-G), the dominant seventh is built off the note of G, and goes G-B-D-F. That chord, in its proper context, “wants” to be followed by C Major, and when it is followed by C Major, the result is deeply satisfying, on an almost primal level. Much of the art of composition involves bringing chord changes back around to this dominant-seventh/tonic cadence, evoking a powerful sense of arrival, of payoff, of conclusion, of fulfillment.
You’re probably wondering why I’ve begun a discussion of Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes with this abstruse digression into elementary music theory. Well, there’s a method to my madness. That idea of a deeply satisfying chord cadence is the best metaphor I can come up with for the peculiar appeal of a certain type of “fan-service” filmmaking that plays off the audience’s awareness of (and, in some cases, reverence for) a pre-existing backstory. We sometimes decry the imaginative paucity of modern summer movies’ endless reliance on reboots, remakes, sequels and prequels; but at their best they can leverage a lingering awareness of ancient canon into a unique satisfaction. We take deep pleasure in the newly-envisioned becoming of a story we already know and value. This applies to historical films as well. Who can forget that moment in John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln when Henry Fonda starts up the road, walking out of the movie and into legend? Or, for that matter, the denouement to Iain Softley’s Backbeat, when John Lennon and the gang launch into “Twist and Shout,” and the Beatles truly begin?
So now, instead, we have Young Mr. Ape (the gloomy and hyper-intelligent chimpanzee Caesar, performed by motion-capture maven Andy Serkis with the ready assistance of a team of CG animators), coming into his own, discovering his destiny, and bringing forth the future history that was first realized on the big screen in 1968 by Franklin Schaffner, Charlton Heston and the gang. I’ve never been a particular partisan of the Apes movies, but they’ve seeped into my consciousness all the same, and there’s a subtle pleasure in seeing the various echoes and intimations of the 43-year-old classic here: the origins of the tripartite chimpanzee-gorilla-orangutan social order, visual hints of the helmeted cavalry who chased Heston through the fields, and no doubt many other homages that I’m not fan enough to have caught. Fan-service can quite easily become belabored and self-indulgent – a substitute for real storytelling – but when delivered with a light, deft touch, as here, it’s a delectable seasoning.
The story still needs to be solid, of course, and Rise doesn’t disappoint on that level either. In fact, its depiction of Caesar’s character arc is one of the purest expressions of the “hero’s journey” that I’ve seen in recent movies. One of those innumerable screenwriting self-help guides breaks down a common protagonist arc into three phases: orphan, wanderer, and warrior (with ‘martyr’ as an optional fourth). Hackneyed though it may be, it’s a template that works pretty well in popular entertainment, probably because it recapitulates – in grander and simpler terms – the journey we all take from childhood to adulthood and self-actualization. Rise’s swift, efficient screenwriting gets the “orphan” phase out of the way in a hurry, but lingers patiently on the later stages of Caesar’s growth, from a beloved pet of James Franco’s genetic scientist, to a brutalized captive, and eventually to the leader of a primate rebellion. Each step in Caesar’s evolution is marked with a strong, satisfying emotional cadence that gives the impression of fine, firm carpentry.
All of this paints the way for the dazzling third act, which is a remarkable sustained action sequence marred only by its dependence on CG visual effects that seldom manage to avoid a certain cartoony quality. This is exacerbated by some unnecessary directorial flourishes by Wyatt, who creates large, elaborately choreographed shots following the apes as they swing and jump around the streets of San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. The shots are giddily satisfying in the moment, but make the CG-ness of it all a bit too apparent, and remind us that no physical camera could have captured such scenes. It’s a minor quibble, though. One of the great pleasures of the climactic battle is that its scale is not too large: it’s really just about a hundred apes against a few dozen cops. It’s only the beginning, and because it gives our imagination free rein to envision future scenarios and escalation, it’s all the more satisfying.
What Rises’s climax captures is the unique, grim pleasure of watching the shit hitting the fan, the chickens coming home to roost, the social order cracking, the Winter Palace being stormed. We find ourselves rooting for the apes not only because the writers (and Serkis and his animators) have done yeoman service in making us sympathize with Caesar, but because we feel a vague sense that humanity is about due for a comeuppance. After all, our particular breed of apes can be said to have made rather a hash of this planet, and maybe Caesar’s gang will prove better custodians. It’s a simplistic, indulgent thought, but one that seems fitting for the twenty minutes you’re watching this remarkable consummation unfold onscreen. And that, too, is testament to the film’s persuasive storytelling.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not merely the best summer movie I’ve seen in 2011; no other would-be blockbuster is even in its league.