The Ape of Things to Come

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. In which, as we always knew he would, James Franco destroys human civilization.


Seriously, think about it: all the decisions leading, in practical terms, to RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’ apocalyptic climax becoming possible are due to unprofessional actions by the film’s hero. To be fair, though, all the emotional drive which makes that climax desirable to the characters engaged in it (ie the apes) are due to the actions of more unsympathetic humans.

Who are all played by British actors (would you entrust your ape to a sanctuary run by Hannibal Lektor and Draco Malfoy?). If it weren’t for the fact that the director and lead ape are British, one would suspect some kind of restaging of the American Revolution in simian drag. Just give Caesar (Andy Serkis) a set of wooden teeth and the illusion would be complete.

Actually, referring to Serkis as Caesar is an oversimplification, in a way that referring to John Hurt as the Elephant Man isn’t. Hurt certainly had the assistance of Chris Tucker’s prosthetic makeup effects (no, not that Chris Tucker), but when he whooped and grunted and shrieked, it was his voice, and when he swung from the bars of his cage and leaped through the treetops, that was really him. That’s not quite accurate, but you get what I mean. And asides from his stuntwork and voicework, considerable portions of his performance, Serkis has had his facial performance “reproduced” by motion capture. Every animator I’ve spoken to is of the opinion that, when this happens, the animators involved (and you had better get animators involved) have to interpret what the mo-cap supplies, and sometimes depart from it, to create an effective performance. Andy Serkis obviously just thinks he’s wearing a pixel suit,  which is fine for him but not TRUE.

I’m not saying he shouldn’t be eligible for an Oscar. I don’t take awards THAT seriously, and in any case, countless actors have been rescued or enhanced by good editing, which is maybe a better reference point than good costumes or makeup. Somebody interfered with those performances, tweaked the timing, censored the misjudged moments, manufactured reactions that never really happened. Mo-cap performances are several stages on from this, but as long as we acknowledge that WHENEVER a movie actor wins an award, it’s for part of a group effort, and that this is true to the power of a hundred with mo-cap, there’s no reason why an effective performance shouldn’t be celebrated. If this thing continues to catch on, though, maybe a special category would be the way to go.

Obviously, ROPOTA *is* a film about revolution, and in some respects a starry-eyed one. As Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman once remarked, “the right people never get hurt,” but in Rupert Wyatt’s film of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s hyper-condensed screenplay, swift simian justice is distributed to most of the bad humans, and the movie is squeamish about depicting injury or fatality to the numerous blameless cops who get in the way.


OK, I’m just going to wade in here: due to the coincidence of the film’s UK opening being a little behind the US one, it’s impossible not to think, occasionally, of the London riots. One doesn’t have to be the racist joke guy on Facebook who’s suddenly reinvented himself as a patriotic voice of reason and won the endorsement of our mean, vapid PM (himself a vandal and lout in his college days) to compare the insurrections in film and life.

Neither the riots nor the film are fundamentally about race, but it’s at the very least a  complicating factor in both. The APES series always touched on race a little, and in not quite comfortable ways, although the first film has barely a trace of this. By the time you get to CONQUEST it’s all about “ape power” and it’s a bit dubious. Including black humans as peaceful good guys in the last two films helped complicate and blur the metaphor a bit, which was useful, and casting David Oyelowo as a big pharma bad guy in the new one is even better. Really, the movie is about any oppressed group, and how violence erupts when injustice has built to such a point that the only conceivable response is a cry of “No!” and the taking up of arms. Whether the violence will actually produce any positive result has come to seem irrelevant to the perpetrator, so intolerable is the status quo.

The apes in ROTPOTA actually act with a much more effective, coherent and sensible common purpose than the rioters in London… actually, that’s unfair. The various goals of the rioters, insofar as they can be gleaned, were achieved, and delivered the short-term results they aimed at. Those were, in no particular order, (1) attaining a feeling of power by intimidating others, preferably those of a different social class, and by violating normal social rules (2) acquisition of free consumer goods (3) expression of revolt against the police. Some took part in all three activities, some in only one or two.

In fairness to the rioters (!), their festive rampage was basically spontaneous, whereas the apes had been planning theirs, at least a bit. So one uprising had only short-term goals, and probably looks a bit stupid now they’ve had a chance to think about it and now that many of them are under arrest, whereas the other had a long-term, desirable result in mind, although one that probably wouldn’t have worked if not for the movie’s other apocalyptic gambit.

What ROTPOTA does, quite usefully, I think, is show the pleasures and satisfactions of violent overthrow of the social order. In the understandable rush to condemn, there’s a tendency to view the disruptive element as alien, other, mindless and unmotivated. David Cameron has wholeheartedly embraced his predecessor John Major’s moronic sound-bite  “We need to condemn more and understand less!” A line which suits him, since he really understands absolutely fuck all. (Hearing that line first spoken, to resounding cheers, at a Tory Party Conference on the TV news was a truly chilling moment for me.) When Julien Temple was asked whether turning a race riot into a dance number in ABSOLUTE BEGINNERS risked making it seem entertaining, he protested that a riot IS entertaining and extremely exciting when you’re in one. This movie dramatizes that in a way that speaks to a contemporary audience more effectively than Temple could manage.


While Time Burton’s inane and abortive series reboot seemed to regard its predecessors as silly, excusing its own dull humour and anything-goes sensibility (gorillas suddenly evice the ability to leap twenty feet straight up — and all because Ang Lee had just boosted wirework), ROTPOTA respects its primate ancestors and builds a credible pseudo-prequel that doesn’t slot into the series (here, Caesar is the child of a lab animal, not time-traveling chimp scientists from the year 3978) but draws upon story elements of the first, third and fourth films, producing a narrative outcome that could lead almost directly to the first movie but without necessarily requiring two thousand years of atomically accelerated evolution to do so.

Accordingly, the movie is stuffed with nods to Schaffner, Wilson and Serling’s Boulle original adaptation, some of which are glaring (can a nod glare?) and some so subtle you’ll only figure them out with a crib sheet or IMDb cross-referencing. The examples below are me taking things too far, as usual.

1) The film is set in San Francisco, which is a homage to actor James Franciscus who starred in BENEATH THE PLANET OF THE APES.

2) The casting of David Hewlett as an unlucky neighbour is not only part of the actor’s ongoing project to appear only in movies about geneticists who take their work home with them (see also SPLICE), but also a reference to SWEET SMELL OF SUCCESS: Hewlett plays a character called Hunsiker, and in SSOS there’s a character called Susie Hunsecker, played by Susan Harrison. And Nova in PLANET OF THE APES is played by Linda Harrison. No relation.

3) In ROTPOTA, John Lithgow plays a man with Alzheimer’s. This is a reference to the original films’ decline into senility with the 1974 TV show.

4) In ROTPOTA, the leading man/doomsday catalyst is played by James Franco. This is a reference to James Whitmore, who plays Dr Zaius some random orang in the original film.

5) The milky eye of Koba, the scary chimp, in ROTPOTA, is a reference to Kirk Douglas in THE VIKINGS, which also features James Donald. Donald also appears in QUATERMASS AND THE PIT, in which ancient visitors in a spacecraft reawaken submerged warlike tendencies in the populace of London, which is exactly what Dr Zaius fears Charlton Heston will do in the original film, as well as being exactly what David Cameron has done in modern London, only without a spacecraft.

He started well but now he’s just got silly.


Since Fiona’s quite well read on the subject of interspecies communication, she was able to supply me with additional insight into the film’s exploration of the subject. “They’ve really done their homework,” she says, pointing to the moment where Caesar is punished for biting a man’s finger, an incident drawn from the life of Washoe, a signing chimp. Some very experienced people like primatologists  Sue Savage-Rumbaugh and Bob Ingersoll (hero of PROJECT NIM) have praised the film for its expressive evocation of the physicality of our ape relations and sympathy with animal characters over human. There have always, or nearly always, been films that took the side of the outsider — in a way its easier, or more flattering, to take the viewpoint of a rebellious chimp than it is to relate to the fleeing citizenry who are closer to our own type — but this movie takes it further than most. The humans are all either ineffectual or wicked.

The film’s air of somewhat-authenticity even manages it to steamroller over moments of outrageous artifice, such as the presence of another signing ape in the hellish “sanctuary” where Caesar is imprisoned. “Circus ape,” is his explanation for his communicativeness, as if any circus taught signing to its orangs. But the emotional impact of Caesar finally having another of his own kind to talk to is such that the contrivance is swept aside.

Really, quite an interesting film, probably the first blockbuster to even try to do anything interesting with real-world engagement since, I don’t know, V FOR VENDETTA. And it probably incorporates its ideas more neatly than that one. This can be seen, on one level, as the first APES film in the series to be actually about our relationship with the animal kingdom.

To take us out, here’s Johnny the chimp reenacting the end of ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES. This is entirely real.

22 Responses to “The Ape of Things to Come”

  1. Don’t know if it was part of the “taking things too far” bit, but James Whitmore didn’t play Dr Zaius. That was Maurice Evans (also the name of the signing circus Orangutan. James Whitmore played an Orang utan on the council during Taylor’s trial.

    I’ll get my coat…

  2. Thanks for that, I’ll correct. One part of my brain knew that, since I was aware that the orang being called “Maurice” in the new one was a tribute, but apparently that part of my brain was not speaking to the typing fingers.

  3. This Andy Serkis business has really gotten out of hand. David Thompson even has an entry for him in his pseudo-encyclopedia.

    The London riots have already been dealt with, but not in the cinema. You’ll find them in the writings of J.G. Ballard. Especially “High-Rise.”

  4. Here’s Viki speaking. Unlike Johnny, (who I don’t think understood what he saying, but realised he’d cottoned on to something that would get him attention and treats) Viki used all her words appropriately.

  5. Serkis is a good actor: in a TV play about the moors murders he was absolutely outstanding. And he made a great Ian Dury.

    I rather dislike him as a spokesman for mo-cap though: “People ask, how is playing Caesar different from Kong – that’s like asking how is Hamlet different from Macbeth!” An ability to sound that ridiculous is the prerogative of the truly humourless.

  6. Was a TV movie made of Emlyn Williams’ “Beyond Belief”? It’s THE book about the Moors murders — with Gordon Burn’s novel “Alma” a close second.

  7. Beyond Belief is incredible. Never filmed. The hysteria surrounding the case kept filmmakers away for decades, and only since Myra Hindley’s death has anyone gone near it. Samantha Morton played Hindley to Serkis’s Brady.

    When Edward Gorey touched on the murders in his The Loathsome Couple, some bookstores rejected it. Sample sentence: “They spent most of the night murdering the child in a variety of ways.”

  8. Emlyn Willimas had a taste for the dark side. “Night Must Fall” was inspired by an old boyfried of his who he discovered (to his horror) was a lot dodgier than he first suspected.

  9. Serkis has been excellent in every non-mo-cap role I’ve seen him in: “Longford,” (the Moors murder TV movie), “24 Hour Party People,” “Topsy-Turvy” …. It would be a shame if he gets slotted as a sort of stunt actor.

  10. He seems to be seeking out that sort of status, or else there just isn’t much work for an actor of his type. You’d think he’d get offered straight baddie roles at least. While Brendan Fraser seems to have willingly typed himself playing opposite toons, Serkis plays the toons.

    The performance he’s part of in ROTPOTA is very good, though.

  11. Serkis has to make motion capture performance sound difficult and important so that people will keep hiring him. If people figure out a monkey could do it better, he’s finished.

  12. To be fair to him, he takes the jobs the other monkeys can’t handle. (What is this, be mean to Serkis day?)

  13. I didn’t mean to be mean. I would probably do the same thing in his position (crouched awkwardly in a skintight electric pervert suit).

  14. Well yes, what else *could* one do in such a position, save seek work on a mo-cap stage to lend the whole thing some dignity?

  15. I don’t think motion capture is the next big thing either. You didn’t need it in old animation. Imagination doing Bugs Bunny today with someone in a mo-capture suit…in fact don’t imagine, its too stupid.

    The London riots affected me in really unsuspected way. My pay is delayed cause some folks riots torched a warehouse containing DVDs I write copy for. That John Major statement is truly atrocious, proto-Bush in its stupidity.

    I haven’t seen this film(or any Planet of Apes movies) but the basic misanthropic plot seems to be like Avatar in a way. Where we are supposed to accept the end of humanity. I wonder if global warming and ecological anxieties have to do with this. I personally find it weird that it’s popular.

  16. In both Avatar and Rise we become more emotionally invested in another species which has been affected by mankind (Sam Worthington joins the Na’vi, bringing human knowledge and thought processes) so in a way these are stories of our post-human future. As AI suggested, mankind might survive through its technology. In the face of environmental disaster, this might be seen as an optimistic view…

  17. Avatar ? It’s a cartoon. And the only cartoons I’m emotionally invested in star Bugs Bunny.

  18. You should see Grave of the Fireflies then, the ultimate test of emotional endurance in cartoon form. I’ve known people who were in tears five minutes in, and all the way to the end. It helps that it’s about reality, not smurfs.

  19. Grave of the Fireflies is a well done film. Quite beautiful. It’s based on the source author’s actual memoirs of what happened to his kid sister. No way something like that can be made in America.

    Animation in many ways is really untapped. It’s potential is barely scratched by today’s studios who only want to advertise their 3D software programs rather than make something really good. The freedom with which the Termite Terrace approached the medium in the 40s makes it seem like a lost art at times. The Pixar stuff like Ratatouille is fun but otherwise too portentous.

  20. I saw Project Nim yesterday and it’s a very fine, if distressing, documentary. As someone who occupied a junior position in academia in the seventies in a discipline unrelated to primate research, the culture it portrayed was all too familiar to me. The failure to address ethical issues, or the long term implications of projects for their participants – human or animal – was widespread, as was the sexual exploitation of students. I trust those days are over. I’m not saying all academics now behave impeccably but, at least, if they don’t they know it.

  21. […] which occurred the weekend the film was released in the USA. A relatively minor example can be read here. Share […]

  22. Yes, Judy, it’s a powerful evocation of a social scene that’s completely operating beyond any ethical controls… the ’70s, in other words.

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