In the late 90’s I worked as a chimpanzee caregiver (a bit like being a zookeeper) at the Primate Foundation of Arizona, where I worked with roughly 80 chimpanzees. Later I did a short stint at The Language Research Center, where I worked with half a dozen bonobos (pygmy chimpanzees) and an orangutan. In my free time, I’ve also had some experience with various monkeys, gibbons and gorillas.
It was with great anticipation that I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes in Phnom Penh. Cambodia has 2 brand new cinemas; the first in the country. I went to the impressive Legend Cinemas in City Mall by the ‘Olympic Stadium.’
The basic premise is that a scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) is trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, motivated by his father’s (John Lithgow) own illness. Rodman engineers a virus, which is tested on Chimpanzees with promising results. An accident at the lab occurs however, and the project is temporarily shut down, leaving Rodman to care for a remarkable infant chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis), in his own home
First the visuals: The effects in the film are spectacular. The incredible attention to detail was in no way lost upon me. Weta Digital (Lord of the Rings, King Kong, The Hobbit) worked their magic to create truly life-like creatures (its my understanding that almost every ape shot in the film is CG Animation). The effects crew accurately depicted the variation and individuality of natural apes, right down to their broken teeth, cataracts, torn ears and bald spots from excessive grooming in captivity. The most impressive characters visually were the male orangutan, followed by Caesar’s chimp rival in the sanctuary, and the first chimp given the second viral trials at the lab. Caesar’s appearance was somewhat more human than a normal chimp, but this is acceptable given he is a bit of a mutant in the film.
Behaviour: As an ex-primatologist, this was the thing that I was most interested to observe and critique, and perhaps one of the most difficult to replicate with CG animation.
Caesar. His movements and behaviour were somewhere in between human and chimpanzee—which is again acceptable because he is the subject of a genetic experiment and raised by humans. He’s also much more nimble at times—particularly as an adolescent (when Andy Serkis obviously wasn’t modelling him)—than a true chimp.
The Orangutan. Spot on. The character was hilarious to me because everything about him, from his movements, gestures and attitude, was typically orang.
Chimps. In general, everything was very life-like. The facial expressions, vocalizations, gestures—all of these require specific contexts and carry meaning for chimps--and this was all well executed. One particular oversight I seemed to notice however, was that the chimps’ hair did not always bristle when they were aggressive, as it naturally should.
The ‘permission’ gesture. In the film, Caesar asks Rodman for ‘permission’ to go play in the forest by extending his hand upward. The gesture is then re-used over and over again in the film. This is indeed a real chimp gesture—more accurately used for ‘re-assurance’ of approval in a tense situation when a subordinate is unsure of himself in the presence of a dominant chimp.
Finger biting. In the labs and sanctuary the chimps would grab staff members and pull their arms inside the cages. In one scene, a protective Caesar bites the neighbour’s finger off. This brings back a lot of memories. This is a constant danger for care staff working with chimps. Countless times I’ve had chimps grab my clothing, boots or arm, and try to pull me up against the cage—sometimes even working as a team of 2 or 3 chimps. Most of the time this is just for their own amusement because they know this freaks the staff out and they enjoy the excitement. However, the danger is always that the chimp will get caught up in the excitement and bite the staff. Several colleagues of mine have lost fingers. It’s pretty common for chimps themselves to be missing a finger or toe or two from the same sorts of incidents.
Grabbing the knife. In one scene, Caesar pulls someone close to the cage, pretending to fool around, but secretly steals their pocket knife. Chimps don’t need an unnatural IQ boost to pull this off. On many occasions younger chimps would fool me be gesturing that they wanted the fruit in my hand, coax me closer to the cage, then use their other hand to snatch the keys out of my pocket. They didn’t do this because they wanted to use them to escape, per se, but rather because they know this was an object I desperately did not want them to have. They received endless enjoyment out of trying to keep the keys away from me, laughing all the while, much as a human child would do. Similarly, baby chimps loved to steal my eyeglasses. It was an endless source of joy to swing from the top of the cage, laughing, and knowing this was the one object Adam most didn’t want them to have. I had a secret weapon however: mommy. If their mother was in the cage too, I just showed here a piece of fruit then pointed to the baby. The mother always knew what I wanted. Immediately she would reach over to the baby and snatch the glasses, handing them to me in exchange for the fruit. Meanwhile baby drops to the floor screaming, flailing his arms and legs and having an infantile temper tantrum.
The sanctuary: This is the part of the film that I actually have the most quibbles with. The layout was odd. While the indoor cages were fairly true-to-life, the large group play-area was highly unusual. I’m not aware of any facility that would have such a large, indoor room. Those kinds of areas are always outdoors. Perhaps an indoor enclosure was chosen because it was an easier environment to work with for computer effects. The electronic cattle prods in the film would never be used under any circumstances in such a facility. Not only is it cruel (and I believe it violates USDA regulations, if not the regulations of every facility that I am aware of), but it would also be resented by the chimps and reinforce negative behaviour (as seen in the film). Also, the food for the chimps would not be so poor. Chimpanzee diets in captivity are quite complex and varied. Of course, all of these things are devises used by the filmmakers to support the ultimate rebellion of the apes.
Caesar’s introduction to the group. No facility would just throw a new chimpanzee (Caesar) out into a large group of other chimps, as was done in the film. Introductions are done slowly with close monitoring, just one or two chimps at a time. There could be deadly consequences if what was done in the movie was carried out in real life.
Behaviour in the sanctuary. In real life, there would have been much more fighting with so many chimps in a small enclosure. There would also be a lot of what, in primatology, we call ‘stereotypes’. The chimps would have exhibited negative behaviours like rocking back and forth (much like mentally damaged human children), drinking urine and eating faeces—and most notably, there should have been faeces smeared all over the walls. In a real sanctuary, those pretty wall murals would never last—they’d be perpetually covered in shit, even if they were cleaned every day. Whether Weta Digital intentionally left this out so as not to gross-out the audience, or because they’ve never observed this behaviour (facilities never want the outside world to see these things—especially not on television), well, they’d have to answer that.
Sanctuary staff. The character of Dodge Landon, played by Tom Felton (Harry Potter), was very unusual for someone who works with primates. While Felton did a fine job with the character that he was given, and his mean-spiritedness provided part of the motivation for the apes to rebel, in real life a chimp caregiver would never behave as such. These jobs are highly competitive, in short supply, and are paid very poorly. Someone has to truly want to be there—to love the animals and be entirely devoted to them—to be there in the first place. Perhaps this can be explained away in the film because the character is apparently the son of the sanctuary owner, rather than a willing employee.
Final Verdict: Overall this is a great film. The story was captivating, the actors were well-selected for their parts, and the apes were most endearing. I had a great time and enjoyed every minute. The compassion often showed by the apes to their human counterparts (who deserved a good thumping), as well as the limited blood and controlled level of violence makes this a suitable film for families. I highly recommend it, and I’m likely to see it again at some point myself.