Friday, August 26, 2011

It Was Earth All Along

In the film "MVP: Most Valuable Primate" and its sequels, "MVP 2: Most Vertical Primate" and "MXP: Most Extreme Primate," a face-meltingly adorable chimp named Jack learns to: play hockey (see there's no rule in the league's bylaws that says chimps can't play); shred a halfpipe; snowboard; love. As I'm sure you can already tell, these are modern classics of the venerable chimp/human buddy genre.

Like its predecessors, these films depend on its lead chimp forging real, substantial relationships with his human companions. As one can plainly see from his heartwarming facial expressions, his endearing chirps and grunts and his attempts at sign language (plus his genius with a puck), Jack is more like us than the haters might like to admit. He can communicate. He has real emotions. He can give us a nice hug. Hey, just what does it mean to be "human" anyway?

Since the "MVP" trilogy was produced on a shoestring budget in the early aughts (although you'd never know it), the filmmakers can't really have been expected to know what a boon digital technology would have been to their enterprise. But it's 2011 now; we've got serious CGI and we can see exactly what it would really look like in real life if an alarmingly intelligent ape named Caesar fell in love with James Franco.

I'm speaking, of course, of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the prequel that lays out just how exactly a ragtag band of monkeys come to rule Earth. In general, "Rise..." is a cloying, ridiculously manipulative, mostly unintentionally funny melodrama (ie a human/chimp buddy picture). But although it does its large-hearted best to reaffirm our belief in humanity (or whatever), it is also another in a long line of paranoid sci-fi films; and a deeply uneasy conscience is one of that genre's hallmarks. (This hybrid, by the way? The chimp-buddy/paranoid future film? is really fucking weird.)

There is an awareness in movies like this--the "Terminator" and "Matrix" films and "Blade Runner" among many others--that the rise of human society has come at some great ecological or spiritual cost and that, as a consequence of these sins, humans are ultimately to be the authors of their own downfall. Apocalyptic catastrophe--and/or a subsequent futuristic dystopia--are the result of our hubristic quest for progress, our inability to understand and fully control our own technology.

So it is in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (seriously, that title). A select group of chimps are given an experimental drug designed to regenerate brain tissue in Alzheimer's patients. But obviously, it doesn't just regenerate damaged tissue, it also causes the apes to experience wild leaps in intelligence, emotional range and language skill--while also (rather conveniently actually, as far as the narrative goes) acting as a fatal virus on humans. Ok, got it, makes total sense. But strangely, the many non-infected apes, although clearly not as advanced as Caesar and his genetically altered pals, also possess curiously rich emotional capabilities. Their waxen, digitally processed faces are suspiciously, human-ishly expressive. Some of them sign in complete sentences (which really is just not possible). As in "MVP"--and really all cute critter films--the filmmakers are invested in narrowing the gap between human and animal.

This is neither new or surprising. After all, these movies (and many others) are machines designed to manipulate our sympathies, to act on our humanistic sensibilities by suggesting that everything seemingly wild and other is actually "like us." Always a comforting thought. But there's more going on here. The apes' rise is precipitated by their acquiring not just human-scale intelligence and sociality but also a kind of madness: a wild desire for freedom, the ability to imagine a new future. Why else would a gorilla choose to fight a helicopter?

In other words, Caesar and friends have come upon the very qualities that have made humans such wildly successful organisms, the qualities that have allowed us to dominate our primordial competitors, to manipulate our environment and transcend the privations of the food chain, to sail into endless, unknown seas. The irony--pretty much unacknowledged in the film--is that these are, of course, the very qualities that have brought us to our present moment of crisis, both in the movie and here in the world.

So there's a major ambivalence here between humanity reaping its just reward--losing the Earth and ushering in its own extinction--and a desire for the survival of something like essential humanness, borne by those ascendant apes. It's a tension between that bad conscience and our thirst for a future beyond ourselves. For many of us, this ambivalence is a familiar feeling.

No comments: