By Peggy Nelson
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – 2011 – dir. Rupert Wyatt
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, head researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) takes his work home with him. And not just in the shape of a test tube.
Imagine if you will, a point in the not-too-distant future where high-stakes research has produced a genetic therapy to repair neuronal pathways lost during Alzheimer’s. The delivery mechanism is a denatured virus that can penetrate otherwise resistant cell walls. Imagine further that this therapy has been so effective that it is ready to undergo human trials. Or perhaps not quite ready, but it has performed spectacularly well on chimps, our closest biological relatives, with whom we share approximately 96% of our DNA. Imagine further, that you are the head researcher, and that it is your own father that has Alzheimer’s. Might you be inclined to do a little fieldwork at home…?
Early in the film, the lab’s showcase chimp, an adult female put through increasingly challenging IQ paces with some geometric puzzle-solving, goes completely berserk just as she is supposed to demonstrate her enhanced mental powers to the committee. Her explosion of violence causes a lab shutdown, a funding shutdown, and the forcible shutdown (extermination) of her and all her fellow research subjects. Except for one. The animal handler refuses to euthanize her newly born (and somehow previously concealed) baby, leaving the syringe for Rodman to do the deed. Regarding the tiny chimp, Rodman realizes that it might have been simple maternal instinct rather than a side effect of the drug that caused the destructive behavior. He decides to bring the chimp home. Just for a little while. Maybe it will calm his dad down, to have a little pet. Dad (John Lithgow), abilities much diminished by aggressive Alzheimer’s, delightedly names the chimp Caesar.
Monitoring Caesar’s growth (and giving him a Spielbergian dream room in the attic), Rodman avoids reinstitutionalizing Caesar, realizing that the genetic improvements in Caesar’s mother have been transmitted to her son. And, and a last-ditch attempt to avoid institutionalizing his father for Alzheimer’s, he gives him the drug, too. Improvements are immediate. At first.
This prequel is a sensitive continuation of the late 60s/early 70s-era Planet of the Apes films, which featured Charlton Heston as the temporally stranded, loincloth-draped astronaut, and Roddy McDowell as the rubberized Ape. Hugely popular at the time, the outdated special effects and clunky dialogue of the original Apes films has made them prime candidates for satire, cult status, and guilty pleasure. But Rise does more than just offer improved special effects for the franchise; it sets itself to imagine how, exactly, might this possible future arrive? And (with a little help from Twelve Monkeys and The Hot Zone), we see that as a possible future, it is not that divergent a timeline from ours. In fact, there’s a real possibility it may not be divergent at all.
With an ensemble cast, and starring the unnervingly malleable Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings) as the CGI’d Caesar, Rise traces an increasingly desperate endgame in the Bay Area, with contemporary San Francisco as the deceptively lovely dystopia. Caesar’s mental development requires increasing emotional sophistication, as he is taken from the homeland security of his attic suburban room and thrown in amongst his own kind in an Ape holding facility near Richmond, CA, complete with cells, overcrowding, power struggles, and blatant cruelty. The questions of “What Am I?” and “What Can I Be?” are accompanied by the increasingly fraught, and increasingly relevant, “How Should I Be?”
What models does Caesar have? Some humans have treated him well. Other humans have not. Human institutions, moreover, have killed his family and raised him to be expendable. Is he a pet, an animal, a little brother, a medical experiment, a “thing?” Should he submit? Escape? Or…enact what would certainly be, from his perspective, a just revenge? Were the new neural connections spawned by the genetic therapy merely cold leaps in logic, or did they also enhance the potential for moral capacity? What becomes of right and wrong when we play God?
Because when we say we “repair” or “re-grow” the cells destroyed in Alzheimer’s, we really just mean grow. The destroyed cells are gone. New ones take their place. And those new ones might, given different circumstances, encode different intellectual and behavioral pathways. Caesar’s circumstances are about as different as they can get.
That’s on the Apes’ side of things. Back with the humans, it might be worth considering just how denatured that delivery virus actually is. In the research lab, time has not stood still. The genetic treatment has advanced from injectable to aerosol, while Rodman’s father, despite continued genetic therapy, has started another downward slide, as the experimental therapy reveals its limitations. Here the film reveals the influence of a different narrative: while the beginning of Flowers for Algernon is enacted by the Ape, the end may in fact be ritualized by Man.
An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and Caesar is the object in question. As the various players and forces gain momentum, the action escalates to a frighteningly real climax, only lightly held at bay by the reminder that this is just a movie. But the not-too-distant future that it portrays may be closer than we think.