We live in apocalyptic times, or so the media would have us believe. The future is represented as increasingly dystopian, and the science fiction genre has always depicted the fragility and uncertainty of humanities esteemed position as the planets ruling species. It seems we nurture a nightmarish obsession with being usurped, entertaining futures where we are overtaken by aliens, enslaved by technology or overthrown by genetically enhanced apes. It is interesting to revisit our age old fears of being replaced as the superior species by beings previously perceived as lesser than us. The media bombards us with sensationalised headlines; the economy is crashing, global warming is an inevitable threat and the planet is becoming overpopulated and under resourced. In this chaotic environment we can easily submerge ourselves in a world where the deterioration of mankind gives rise to a new master species, the apes.
We are all familiar with the Planet of the Apes story, whether you were first acquainted with the French novel, written by Pierre Boulle, Franklin J. Schaffners film adaptation, or the more recent, unimpressive venture from Tim Burton. Rupert Wyatt’s adaptation does not fit the continuity of the established series, instead it is a reboot rather than a remake, chronicling the origin of the apes uprising and laying the foundation for a new departure.
Will Rodman (James Franco), works as a scientist at pharmaceutical company Gen-Sys, attempting to concoct a cure for Alzheimer’s by testing a genetically engineered gene therapy on chimp test subjects. The drug mutates the chimpanzees in such a way that it bestows them with increased intelligence. The most exceptional subject, Bright Eyes, violently overtakes a board meeting in which Will is delivering his sales pitch, believing her recently born baby is under threat, thus dashing Will’s hopes of convincing potential investors.
The typically villainous and unscrupulous English boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) orders chimp handler Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) to destroy the chimps but he is unable to destroy Bright Eyes son, and so Will raises him in secret. He is aptly named Caesar after the tyrannical and revolutionary roman emperors of Roman history and indicative of his future as a ‘seizer’ of power from his human oppressors, by Wills father Charles (exquisitely portrayed by Nigel Lithgow). Charles is in the first stages of early onset Alzheimer’s, lending Will’s calculated scientific studies a human motivation.
Caesar flourishes under the two men’s care, but eventually outgrows his suburban life and begins to stick out like a sore thumb amongst the more conventional inhabitants, particularly next door neighbour Hunsiker (David Hewlett). Caesar has a hard time reconciling his animalistic, territorial nature with the human world he must inhabit and the human terms he must abide by. When protecting a disoriented Charles from the onslaught of Hunsiker, Caesar reacts violently, and is confused by the disdain, fear and shock of onlookers. He is separated from Will, the only father he has known, and forced to stay at the San Bruno Primates Sanctuary, owned by John Landon (Brian Cox) and overseen by his cruel son Dodge (Harry Potter’s nihilistic Tom Felton), who faced with no prospects and no future, has become desensitized to the marvellous animals in his care and inflicts upon them a torturous and tormenting day to day existence. Beginning to perceive himself as a pet, prize and prisoner, Caesar is abused not only by humans but by his fellow apes, although he does develop a friendship with Maurice, a former circus orang-utan who communicates with him using sign language.
Caesar begins to detach himself from his former family and quietly thinks of a way to escape his imprisonment. He releases Buck, a gorilla kept in solitary confinement and gains the respect and admiration of his fellow apes. Meanwhile Will, mourning for Caesar, continues working on his treatment and Jacobs clears testing. Unbeknownst to them at this stage, the virus, though beneficial to apes, has devastating consequences for human users. Unfortunately, Charles’s immune system negates the effects of the treatment and he passes away. Caesar refuses to return to Will and instead pledges his allegiance to his own genus, stealing vials of the treatment and releasing them in his captive home, before teaming up with captive zoo apes, causing a mass break out. The film culminates in a battle between ape and man on the Golden Gate Bridge which boasts some spectacular scenes. The apes make it to the Redwood Forest, overseeing the city from their own vantage point and through new eyes. A new future for the apes also heralds the downfall of humanity as a global pandemic, triggered by the treatment begins to spread.
Despite being a new franchise in itself, Wyatt pays homage to his predecessors, hinting that the future for the apes lies in space, as Mars has been declared hospitable to sustain life. CGI breathes life into the apes. We are not faced with anthropomorphic puppets reminiscent of humans, but apes as they are, merely with increased intelligence. As such, although some scenes look clunky and unrealistic, the apes are portrayed with powerful, rousing humanity, particularly Caesar who is given life by the wonderful Andy Serkis who seems to be able to inhibit any skin he is given, whether it be Gollum or King Kong. The film charts the rise of the apes against the cruelty, oppression, revulsion and disrespect of their human captors and their disillusionment with their place in human society. They embody the power of the united collective against the disparate hedonistic individual endeavours of the human.
The retaliation of the apes generates a conflicting empathy and makes us question our relationship to our genetic cousins. The tense relationship between the natural order of evolution and the man made endeavours of science remind us of our tendency to exploit animals for the benefit of man alone to the detriment of their wellbeing. There are some truly moving interactions between man and ape, and you will be surprised at how CGI images can evoke such a strong emotional reaction. Man has always been preoccupied both with his future and with the place of his origin and as such the ape has a special place in our hearts. This film intriguingly explores the relationship between species and our primal struggles to play god and imprint a meaning on the chaos of existence. There are moments that truly silenced the audience with their intermingling of the animal and the human and will hopefully bridge the gap between where humans are now and potentially, from where we came.