A Question of Damned Dirty Audience

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (August 5, 2011)     3/5

Directed by Rupert Wyatt (20th Century Fox)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite being a sci-fi adventure tale of mere surface, actually has a significant amount to say about modern society.  First off, it warns us not to allow our scientific advances to get out of hand (a.k.a. that ambivalent theme of humans playing God).  Secondly, it tells us that a franchise built upon talking men in ape suits, spraying a hose at Charlton Heston, would never be as successful in 2011 as a CGI chimp being sprayed viciously by Draco Malfoy.  Despite not having an ounce of the original series’ kinkiness, which consisted of five films running from 1968 to 1973, Rise is a fitting reboot to the franchise, slightly surpassing Tim’s Burton’s mediocre, albeit underrated, remake from a decade ago.

Story wise, second-time director Rupert Wyatt stages this “prequel” in a completely different world than its predecessors, centering on Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who believes he has found a cure for Alzheimer’s.  Will hopes to cure his terminally ill father (John Lithgow), but soon finds that his retrovirus may actually increase intelligence.  Taking home a baby chimpanzee after a failed experiment, Will soon learns that the sample virus he gave to the chimp’s mother has actually been transferred genetically.  Will names the chimp Ceasar (an homage to Roddy McDowall’s character in the last three Ape movies), and begins to monitor his development over several years.  Will basically becomes a loving father figure, but that relationship is severed after an incident with the neighbors, thereby forcing Ceasar to be placed in a nightmarish monkey prison.  And the rest is … in the trailer.

No, the main fault of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not its grammatically poor title, but the lack of any spark to surprise us as the now-smart primates stomp their way through San Francisco.  Those scenes, despite being spectacularly staged, are nothing compared to the cheesiness of apes in prison suits attacking their foes with flamethrowers.  When I was about 10, I saw all of the Planet of the Apes films, and the surreal nature of those movies couldn’t be more absent in Rise.  There are a few cool homages to the 1968 original (and a few horrible ones) that could possible be revisited in new sequels.  But besides that, Rise provides nothing much in story or tone that is either unique or nostalgic.  However, it does have Andy Serkis.  Serkis, who created a pop culture sensation with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, captures the movements of computerized-Cesar with “how did they do that?” astonishment.  The apes are extremely lifelike, and with the help of Avatar special effects club members, have created quite a spectacle here.  The film’s climax is thrilling, despite the fact that afterword, it doesn’t seem to capitalize on the particulars of this story, only the visual feats that have been brought to the table.

So much attention is brought to the apes, in fact, that the human characters bare hardly any standing, so much so that we can’t wait for them to get bashed with big, hairy fists (many scenes of dialogue were reportedly trimmed).  James Franco, as great of an actor as he is, simply looks bored most of the time.  I would say he was miscast, but with such a one-dimensional role, it is hard to think of anyone who could replace him.  He does his best with the simplistic script, as does the rest of the cast.  Meanwhile, the father-son relationship with John Lithgow could’ve been deepened, as could Will’s courtship of a veterinarian played by Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto, which is so weak it seems nearly laughable.  What takes center-stage is Will’s love for his non-pet Caesar, which for a relationship between a young man and his animated chimp, is actually quite moving.  This non-artificiality is enhanced by the mechanics of the story, which are surprisingly convincing.  The chimp revolt is executed with a high level of credibility, taking itself completely seriously, as opposed to the corny originals.  Although that deprives us of what made the movies of Heston’s day so great, it also makes Rise a fitting entry for the realm of 21st-Century science-fiction.  A Frankenstein tale for the age of modern medicine.

The film provides the idea (one that was explored in Steven Spielberg’s A.I. with the concept of androids) that humans will eventually create something beyond their control, something that does not fit within the society we have created for ourselves.  And once we fully comprehend the atrocity, turning against our own creations, it will already be too late.  Eventually, the human race will become extinct, and these “things” will rule when we are gone.  To some extent, the original presented this theme with the implication of nuclear warfare.  Regardless of origin, it is quite an intriguing premise, and should have provided as much to the plot as the apes themselves.  Instead, the film favors predictability for the showcase of its primal creations, rather than giving us a divinely human story.  When I saw Rise at a Regal matinee (midafternoon on a weekday), I couldn’t help but be distracted by the screaming toddler in my row, accompanied by the young woman behind me, who couldn’t help but proclaim “oh shit!” when a chimp did something not ordinarily seen at your local zoo.  It was as if she was astonished that a movie could show actions that don’t normally occur in everyday life. 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite having some clear issues, is a film of relative intelligence, and for that, deserves to be played in front of relatively intelligent people.  For most of the film, I felt as though I was an ape, a product of a consumer-based society so bent on marketing trash action-pictures that I can barely stand to watch such a movie at a mainstream theater anymore.  Therefore, it saddened me to think that’s what Rise was playing down to – an audience that brings infants to a PG-13 movie and gapes as a chimp smashes through a car windshield.  I know I requested hokiness, but is it too much to ask for a movie built around its own ideas, rather than the monkeys that execute them?  After all, they did it in 1968.  If only this Planet of the Apes tried harder to enlighten humans, as well.  Only then, in the best sense of the word, would it be a madhouse.



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