Ideas and Idealessness in *Rise of the Planet of the Apes*

I happened across these comments (by Vadim Rizov in GreenCine, via Jim Emerson’s Sun Times commentary) about the seeming paucity of allegorical meanings in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (especially considering how metaphorically laden the franchise has been in the past, particularly in reference to race):

“Rise” decides it doesn’t really need resonance or grown-up subtext. It has something better: digitally rendered monkeys that can move really fast. When the chimps make a run for the woods, they move at velociraptor speed. The ’60s and ’70s didn’t have such technology and relied on profundity, but “Rise” doesn’t need ideas…. Steve warns Will not to get too emotionally involved in his research since investors want results, not feelings. The metaphor applies to the movie—it’s mostly mechanical, honed on results rather than motivations—but it makes for good craft, and the chases rule.

I thought this was a good point that made me think of Neal Gabler’s thinkpiece in yesterday’s NYT Sunday Review (is that what they’re calling it now?), “The Elusive Big Idea,” in which he argues that “in effect, we are living in an increasingly post-idea world — a world in which big, thought-provoking ideas that can’t instantly be monetized are of so little intrinsic value that fewer people are generating them and fewer outlets are disseminating them, the Internet notwithstanding. Bold ideas are almost passé.”

I think there are some problems in Gabler’s claims… For example, “To paraphrase the famous dictum, often attributed to Yogi Berra, that you can’t think and hit at the same time, you can’t think and tweet at the same time either, not because it is impossible to multitask but because tweeting, which is largely a burst of either brief, unsupported opinions or brief descriptions of your own prosaic activities, is a form of distraction or anti-thinking.”  Thought cannot occur in fragments, in small bursts or pieces?  Tell that to Nietzsche or Oscar Wilde.  Thought cannot occur socially, manifested less in individual geniuses than in social networks?  Tell that to… I dunno, Addison and Steele.

But, I don’t think Gabler is entirely wrong that our culture today is less interested than it used to be in “ideas that can’t instantly be monetized” or instantiated in some technological form (or that Twitter has its limits as a vehicle for powerful or fully-articulated ideas!).  In that sense, I agree with Rizov’s reading of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which abandons allegory or deep/”hidden” meaning for kinetic motion and technological spectacle and illusion.

The movie can be understood more positively in this sense through the lens of something like Sontag’s “Against Interpretation.”  It’s beside the point to plumb its depths for “meaning” or allegory.  One should instead meet it on its own terms via immersion in the flow and kineticism of its spectacle.  I was dazzled and entranced by the movements of the apes: hurling themselves through the air, confined in indoor spaces and then, in their freedom, unconstrained & released, turning San Francisco into a Parkour environment for flying, swinging, spinning, ricocheting.  The scene where the driver and the jogger stop at the strange sight of rustling trees and falling leaves on a suburban street, and then turn their gazes upwards to see the shadowy apes traversing the city above the treeline, is extraordinary.  At some level the apes have to be figures for the camera itself, released into three-dimensional exploits unimaginable before the rise of contemporary action film technologies, allowing human vision to transcend ordinary, ground-bound limitations.

The film arguably does enact a “meaning” which can be described as a fulfillment of a belief in ape species-being flourishing in kinetic movement and activity.  The trajectory of the movie is from confinement, and subordination to human control, to a unchecked flow of pack or tribe bodily expressiveness through movement, from tree to tree, structure to structure, and more broadly away from city towards the forest.  “Evolution becomes Revolution” (the film’s tagline), linear movement becomes the “monkeying around” of spinning, rotating bodily performance.  So when Rizov comments that “the chases rule,” he’s being a bit too dismissive, IMO, of the “deeper” (though that’s not really the right term) meaning of the chases, which enact and display the movie’s primary values in jaw-dropping ways.  And in this sense this is definitely a Planet of the Apes movie for our moment.

That said, the human acting [by this I mean by human beings portraying human beings; Andy Serkis as Caesar is fantastic] was really lousy!  James Franco called to mind his wooden Oscar-host performance (very little movement kinetic or otherwise).

3 thoughts on “Ideas and Idealessness in *Rise of the Planet of the Apes*”

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