Friday, January 11, 2013

Cinema 2011: Chimp change

"Rise of The Planet of the Apes" from 2011 bases its narrative on the germination of higher intelligence among the apes, although Darwin has been taken out of the equation, presumably because evolution theory is slower than baseball.

It is man who develops a brain-repair medicine and tests it on chimps. One of those chimps is pregnant but none of the white-frocked science guys or burly chimp wranglers notices, of course. That overly cute baby chimp ends up as the lone survivor of a primate pogrom ordered by the laboratory director after a violent incident is interpreted as a side-effect of the wonder drug.

Named Caesar, the baby chimp is raised as a pet and soon as a son by the protagonist scientist (James Franco), who realizes the experimental medication has been passed in utero from pregnant mother, now deceased, to this baby.

Director Rupert Wyatt's buildup to the promise of the title is uneven, at times boring. Caesar runs around the good doctor’s house naked until the scientist starts dating a zoo vet (Freida Pinto). Eventually an adolescent Caesar (Andy Serkis) goes ape on a hapless neighbor. While both combatants appear to have anger management issues, no doubt rooted in the frustration of their suburban routines, the neighbor’s opposable thumb and other digits are no match for the dentition of the adolescent ape, who consequently is remanded to a shelter to await his day in court. The shelter is chock full of primates, including an orangutan who learned to sign in a circus, a backstory that inexplicably is never developed. Come on Wyatt, give us some scenes of the big orange orang chumming around with carnies in the shadow of the big top.

One laugh-out-loud scene occurs when the scientist visits Caesar in lockup and vows, “I’ll get you out of here.” Well, in the theater I was actually the only one who laughed but you really have to guffaw at this schlock, I mean, we haven’t abdicated our intelligence to another species quite yet, have we?

The jailbreak does come, but on Caesar’s terms. By now the chess-playing chimp is leader of a group of about 40 primates; Caesar springs them all and the apes go bouncing into Frisco to free their brethren who are being experimented on at the lab where Caesar was born. Now their ranks have swollen to some 100 or more chimps, orangs and gorillas, who can smash through plate glass and fall two stories onto concrete without a scratch or bruised tendon.

They wreak lethal havoc as they head for the Golden Gate Bridge and the redwoods beyond — in the film those trees are just beyond, say in place of Sausolito. No matter, it is still a “Eureka” moment for Caesar, who by now is standing upright and can manage limited speech.

In the woods, the good scientist catches up with the chimps and pleads for Caesar to come home. The mighty primate pulls the researcher close and, standing head to head with the man who raised him, whispers, “Caesar is home.” Check out the big brain on Caesar.

The public enemy chimp and leader of the smart apes turns his back on the scientist and walks upright to a giant tree and climbs it. Apparently, you can take the chimp out of the jungle but you can’t take the jungle out of the chimp, even if his IQ rivals man and he can speak, sign, and wipe his chimp ass.

The movie ends with the apes sitting in the top branches of the redwoods looking out on Frisco Bay, the city, and the country beyond. But this cinematically sweet image does not stand scrutiny. How will this planet of the apes ever rise if those hairy legions stay in the trees? If they are ever going to conquer Earth, Caesar’s cerebrating simians need to descend redux from the trees, and maybe get to work on making some weapons grade plutonium.

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