A bit late of me, I know, but I finally saw Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I quite liked despite the fact that there really isn’t a distinguished human performance in the movie with the possible exception of John Lithgow, who isn’t required to do much but does it handily. Rather, it struck me both as a smart and ultimately circumvented fantasy of cures for the memory diseases that are going to be an increasing part of our society and concurrently our popular culture, and of a piece with a larger trend these past few months.
It doesn’t feel accidental to me that the two best (which is not to say highest-earning) blockbusters of the summer trace the rising militancy of their main characters, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and Magneto in X-Men: First Class. While the curtain falls on young Magneto as Sebastian Shaw begins his awful work on his newly-acquired test subject and rises again on a fully radicalized young man, exploring a moment when he might have rejected that radicalism and decides against it, we witness the full range of degradations Caesar is subject to.
The movie starts with James Franco’s scientist character, Will, assuming after some initial hesitation that because he’s juiced Caesar’s intelligence, he’ll be able to integrate Caesar into his life. That works as long as Caesar’s life is placid, and as long as Will doesn’t have to work too hard or give too much up in order to keep the third member of his family with him. The moment Caesar sees Will snuggling up to cutie veterinarian Caroline (an entirely indistinct Frieda Pinto), he — and we — knows that Will’s loyalty will weaken now that he’s been presented with an easier companion. When Caesar defends Will’s father, in the throes of an Alzheimer’s-induced confusion, in Will’s absence, Will acquiesces to the animal control bureaucracy of the state of California, and lets Caesar be locked up in an ape refuge that is in reality the sadistic playground for torturers like Tom Felton and Brian Cox, soft-shoeing through old routines. (In this respect, and when law enforcement attacks the apes, government’s the enemy, though given how absurdly lax the protocols are at the lab where Will works, you’ve got to think that some bureaucracy, governmental or otherwise, could have saved us a whole mess of trouble.) And Will doesn’t try very hard to get Caesar back, leaving him alone in an environment he’s totally unprepared for.
So left to his own devices, and convinced that Will can’t make humans any better, Caesar begins to reform his own people, freeing the gorilla who is permanently locked up, establishing his dominance over the other residents of the sanctuary, dosing the apes in the sanctuary with the next variant of the drug he was born influenced by, and starting to plan with them. When he leads their escape and their defense against the San Francisco cops who attack them, he’s both a macro- and micro-level strategist, giving one of Gen Sys’ test subjects the emotional satisfaction of killing Steven Jacobs, the careless head of the corporation, but refusing to kill Will. Caesar is ultimately more human than the human who raised him — he’s grown up to be a better man, and a clearer visionary, than the man who raised him.
It makes sense that movies like these — and their hopeful, escapist alternatives, like Captain America — are so appealing right now. Whether you think it’s unemployment rates, or partisanship, or you embrace Drew Westen’s rhetorical theory of the Obama presidency, Americans are angry at established institutions, they’re hurting economically, and even if they’re not, they’re frustrated by the failure of a range of policy problems. We may not know where we’re going or what we could do to make things better, but neither do Magneto and Caesar. These movies are the fantasy of rebellion without the requirement to build a new order. And the heroes aren’t who we expected them to be.