Entertainment & Arts

Rise of the Apes movie holds up mirror to humanity

Caesar the chimp, portrayed by Andy Serkis, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Image caption Andy Serkis, critically acclaimed for his motion-capture performance as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, plays a chimp in the new movie

The Planet of the Apes franchise has lasted more than four decades, and is rebooted in 2011 with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. But what do the Apes films tell us about humankind?

Cinema has long enjoyed a love affair with apes. In the 1930s, King Kong battled biplanes atop the Empire State Building, while Tarzan teamed up with Cheeta in the jungle.

A chimp caused comic chaos for Cary Grant in Monkey Business, and Clint Eastwood co-starred with Clyde the orangutan in Every Which Way But Loose (and its sequel).

There were also Gorillas in the Mist, Mighty Joe Young, Amy the talking gorilla in Congo, and the man-apes at the start of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

But one of the most memorable scenes in simian cinema is the first glimpse of a gorilla on horseback in the 1968 classic, Planet of the Apes.

A gorilla on horseback, in a military uniform. Holding a gun.

"The great thing about the Apes mythology is it's all about us and our world," says Rupert Wyatt, director of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

"That scene turns the world upside down. It taps into our most primal fears. It introduces the idea of a world where we are not alpha."

Wyatt's origins story - set in present-day San Francisco - comes 10 years after Tim Burton's critically unloved remake of Planet of the Apes, which starred Mark Wahlberg, Helena Bonham Carter and Tim Roth.

The Planet of the Apes phenomenon started with Pierre Boulle's original 1963 novel. The 1968 film - starring Charlton Heston - spawned four sequels, as well as a 1970s live-action TV series and a cartoon.

But the Planet of the Apes films weren't just about gun-toting gorillas. As with much science fiction, there was subtext.

"They appear to be about apes, but they are really about people," says Rich Handley, founder of Hasslein Books and author of Lexicon of the Planet of the Apes (2010) and Timeline of the Planet of the Apes (2008).

"They hold a mirror up to us - and the mirror has two reflections, neither of which is very flattering.

"In the first film you've got humans who are reduced to mindless savages, and intelligent apes who are literally aping human behaviour and doing just as bad a job of it: they've still got prejudices, religious dogmatism and military paranoia."

Animal testing

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Media captionTom Brook looks at the latest Hollywood blockbuster, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Even ape society has its clear divisions - with the orangutans as political leaders, the chimpanzees as intellectuals and scientists, and gorillas as the military muscle.

"Both the savage, smelly humans and the snooty ape intellectuals are a reflection of humanity's inhumanity," adds Handley. He points out that the sequels explore other themes including nuclear paranoia, religious extremism and animal cruelty.

In 2011 there are other issues to explore. Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes genetics research and animal testing as its over-arching theme, but also looks at father-son relationships.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist searching for a cure for Alzheimer's. He is partly driven by the fact that his father - played by John Lithgow - has the disease.

When the project is shut down, Rodman continues his experiments at home on chimp Caesar, a CGI creation played by Andy Serkis. The super-intelligent ape ends up at a primate sanctuary, and events quickly spin beyond human control.

"It's a Spartacus story," says Rupert Wyatt. "It's a few apes rising up against their oppressors, but after that it's an escape movie, it's them trying to find paradise."

Wyatt says he was cautious about including too many references to the original movie, but there are plenty for fans to spot. There's even Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments on a TV set at the ape sanctuary.

Image caption Project Nim focuses on communication between man and chimp

In an ironic quirk of scheduling, Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrives in the same week as Project Nim, a documentary about an experiment in the 1970s which aimed to show that a chimp could learn to communicate with language if raised like a human child.

"There are echoes of his story in ours, but our main inspiration was Oliver the 'human-zee'," says Wyatt. "He was a chimp who preferred to walk upright. Some people did think he was the missing link."

Elsewhere on the cultural spectrum, Los Angeles artist Rachel Mayeri will premiere her latest Primate Cinema project at the Abandon Normal Devices festival in Liverpool at the end of September.

Her multi-channel video installation creates a film for chimpanzees based on their responses to cartoons, documentaries and feature films.

With talk of a sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes already in the air, why has the franchise endured?

"Part of the appeal comes from the staying power of the originals," says Handley.

"Those problems that resonated with the original audience still resonate today: we are still mistreating animals, and damaging the environment and feel in danger of being besieged."

Rise director Rupert Wyatt adds: "Planet of the Apes challenges us in terms of how we think about the world and it thrills us from an entertainment point of view.

"It's one of those rare bits of alchemy. I'm very fortunate to be a part of it."

Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens in the UK on 11 August.

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