Uncanny Valley of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is eerily like a real movie

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a movie about an eerily realistic-looking ape creature with dead eyes, who is surrounded by people insisting how smart he is even though he keeps making incredibly stupid decisions.

To be fair, though, I’ve heard he was pretty good in 127 Hours.

It also stars a CG chimpanzee named Caesar, who actually looked really good for about 90% of the movie. I started to wonder if they directed the other actors to be stiff and wooden so that the CG cast would look better in comparison.

Actually, that sums up how I spent most of the movie: wondering just how much of it all was intentional. Because the weird thing is that I really enjoyed it. But only because I tok it as camp where everybody was in on the joke and played it completely straight.

I counted about five references to the original Planet of the Apes (not Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which is more or less the movie that this is trying to remake; and definitely not the unfortunate Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes). That’s about three references too many, but it was enough to convince me that they weren’t being completely earnest when they had a gorilla (spoiler!) jumping onto a helicopter from the top of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Because that’d be silly.

I realize that my enjoying Rise of the Planet of the Apes would seem to make me a hypocrite, since I’ve complained about both The Transformers movies and ironic detachment at great length before. But there are some important differences. Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t a great movie, but unlike The Transformers, it’s not a lazy movie. They take the premise and they run with it.

And the self-awareness isn’t the usual tiresome making fun of itself, but having fun with itself. There’s a running gag where everything bad in the story happens to the guy from Stargate Atlantis, but it’s a gag that actually turns into a series of major plot points, plot points that are actually pretty well thought out.

What’s most interesting to me about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is Rain’s comment that the end of King Kong proves that you can make a CG ape that the audience actually cares about. She didn’t care about any of the characters in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, so when (spoiler!) a gorilla dies in Caesar’s arms, it didn’t have any impact.

The scene didn’t have any impact on me, either, but during the movie, it didn’t even occur to me that that was a problem. Action movies use scenes like that as if they were punctuation — it’s like ending a sentence with an exclamation point. I don’t actually mean anyone to get that excited! It’s just the way these things work. (And I should point out that they don’t take it too far; Caesar doesn’t look to the heavens and shout “NOOOOOOO!”)

For the record, I don’t recall crying at the end of King Kong either; knowing me, I very well might have, but it didn’t have any genuine impact on me on the level of “It’s been a tough year, Dad” or the like. And the moments in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that I think were supposed to have impact — no spoilers, but at a key moment, Caesar does something that apes aren’t supposed to be able to do — really did work for me.

So there’s the question: if movies keep throwing in meaningless scenes like this and we all just take it for granted and run with it, is that a case of lowering expectations? Have I become part of the problem? Or have I just been more interested in seeing chimps run down Market Street than in seeing chimps make me feel bad for them, and I finally found a movie that delivered?