The Almost Conquest of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes; or James Franco and Tom Felton Aren’t Very Good

In 1968, Planet of the Apes was released to both critical and commercial success, giving birth to a new a franchise. Four more films were made based on the original mythology from 1970 to 1973. In 2001, Tim Burton directed his interpretation of the series with yet another film simply titled Planet of the Apes; no direct sequels followed. Burton’s film had great makeup effects, but fell short on every other level. Now, a decade later, with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt reboots the franchise in earnest, without the inanity and goofiness that beleaguered Burton’s version. This change was as needed as it was welcomed.

Out of the original five films, I thought all of them were good, and three of them were great: Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes are (with their dated effects and all), in my opinion, some of the strongest science fiction films of the ‘60s and ‘70s, if not of all time. Science fiction is perhaps the best genre to explore humanity’s problems with itself, its challenges with the exponential growth of knowledge, and its difficulties with the sweeping social and technological changes that occur as a result from such knowledge. The original films dealt with sociopolitical themes that mirrored the tribulations that plagued society during the tumult of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s: racism, class division, worker exploitation, nuclear war, and the general way in which power was distributed among members of society were all ideas that were explored (oh, how some things never change). Each film had a point of view and wasn’t afraid to tackle those themes with a certain amount of conviction and fervor. These films treated the situations that their characters were in rather seriously, but also took their loftier ideas even more seriously: this is what made these films standout. They were much more than entertainment and amusement. They were trying harder than most films. They were greater than the sum totals of all their parts. (Yes, I think this highly of them.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets some things brilliantly right, and a few things offensively wrong. The film opens in an African jungle. Poachers are capturing chimpanzees and sending them to Genesys, a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company that is using them as test subjects for a drug that is attempting to cure Alzheimer’s disease. The head of this project is Will Rodman (terribly played by James Franco). Events unfold that eventually force Will to bring a baby chimp home, but not after having the effects of the experimental drug genetically passed to him. Will’s father (terribly played by John Lithgow), who is ailing from the very disease that Will is working to cure, immediately takes a liking to the baby chimp recently named Caesar (wonderfully played by Andy Serkis). Caesar spends his days in the Rodman’s attic, watching the outside world through a circular window. At first, he seems at ease with his captivity, but this quickly changes.

We learn that the prototype of the drug increases the intelligence of the apes. Caesar eventually demonstrates intellect that is considered above average—even over human counterparts the same age. Caesar is taught sign language and communicates freely with Will. He begins to develop self-awareness and the burdensome and complicated emotions that arrive with such a cognitive state. Eventually, in an effectively emotional scene, he asks Will if he is a pet. Regardless of Will’s denial, he still feels like one. Caesar knows there is one else like him; he is alone. Moreover, once Caesar learns what Will does for a living, we assume that he starts to harbor trust issues and general disgust for the human race. Conflicted and confused, Caesar only grows more introspective, questioning, and curious; as a result, he becomes more difficult to control. After a mishap involving Will’s father and a neighbor, Caesar is captured by animal control and sent to a primate facility.

Once at the primate facility, the movie begins to shine. Caesar has never been around others of his kind. His first meeting with the other apes in a jungle-themed primate recreational room is handled very well, as are most of the scenes that take place at this facility. The amazing thing about this section of the film is that hardly any dialogue is spoken: it almost turns into a silent film. The significant glances and the determined looks on Caesar’s face are far more engaging than any human actor in the film. Seriously, the apes, including those in the background that are seen as only specks on the screen, are far more compelling than any human character. There are also some terrific and surprising moments involving a former circus orangutan and a silverback gorilla named Buck. More of the film should have taken place here. It would have given us a chance to know some of these apes more as characters rather than plot devices. For example, the orangutan and Buck are way more interesting than the scientists—I wanted to know about their backgrounds.

Eventually, Caesar grows tired with how the apes are being treated and begins to plan a revolt. He forms bonds with some of the apes, but he knows that most of them are not intelligent enough to understand how dire their situation really is; therefore, he sneaks out of the facility and fetches some canisters of the drug to aid in the evolution of his peers. They begin organizing, plotting, and eventually escape. Again, I would have liked more scenes involving the apes communicating and sharing their experiences. If we spent more time with the apes, it would have made their rebellion that much more satisfying.

Caesar leads his troops into the streets of San Francisco. They seemingly free all of the apes that are being held in captivity in the entire Bay Area and do battle with local law enforcement. Visually, there are some nice moments here. The image of Caesar popping up over a building’s ledge—followed by hundreds of other apes armed with makeshift spears was memorable. Also, the unwavering look on Caesar’s face as he approaches the Golden Gate Bridge via streetcar was particularly powerful.

The film concludes with Caesar and his army trying to cross the Golden Gate Bridge. Caesar’s use of strategy was quite impressive. He uses the dense fog of the Bay Area as an asset. He commands three separate units to gain an overwhelming tactical advantage. After recently viewing Michael Bay’s hideous Transformers: Dark of the Moon, it was refreshing to see an action set piece that had a point, was presented in a logical way, and had characters that made smart decisions to carry out their desired actions. Overall, however, the conclusion felt rushed and was not entirely gratifying, mainly due to some poor writing and one really dumb human character.

Much praise is to be given to Andy Serkis and the designers that brought Caesar to life. Anytime Caesar was on the screen, I was entertained and excited by what could happen next. The amount of emotion conveyed through his eyes alone was amazing. Serkis did an incredible job here. I believed the performance, became emotionally attached, and cared more about a non-existent, computer-generated image over any flesh and blood human in the entire film. This was truly Caesar’s film.

All of the human actors were weak, but out of the terrible human performances, two actors need to be mentioned by name. The first of these is James Franco. He showed almost no emotional response to any situation throughout the movie—no matter how minor or major the event was. For example, when a major and startling revelation was discovered, he squinted and delivered his lines like nothing unusual had taken place, but the information he just received was truly mind-blowing. Moments like this really killed the film. (Also, for someone that’s about to earn a PhD in real life, you would think he could’ve pulled off playing a research scientist rather well, but he didn’t.) However, as bad as he was, he was not the worst actor in the film. This dubious honor goes to Tom Felton, who played Dodge Landon (with a name like that, you know he has to be bad), an abusive worker at the primate facility. I’m not even going to waste my time writing about his performance; there is life to be lived.

Other than all the human actors’ performances, the additional major issues I had were with the script. There was an unnecessary character, Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto), a veterinarian that was introduced in the first act as Will’s love interest. Other than a couple of lines about questioning the ethics of animal testing, she did nothing in this film. She was only there because it’s the standard Hollywood practice that main characters always have to be in relationships. Seriously, why can’t people be single in movies? The second major problem was that they should have delved into just how cruel the human race can really be. I felt that this was sugarcoated and glossed over. For example, the Ape Management Center that trained apes for slave labor in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was far more brutal than anything seen in this film. A few scenes like this would have made the plight of the apes more poignant and, for the simple sake of cinematic storytelling, made the film more dramatic. And the last thing that I want to bring up is the truly stupid scene where Dodge brought a friend and their dates to the primate facility to get drunk and torment the apes. This was the worst scene in the film. Everything about it was forced and rang false. I can’t imagine two women (no matter how right-wing, Ayn Rand-loving, and anti-animal rights you could be) that would actually put up with two guys shocking apes in cages. I know that I just mentioned that I would have liked to have seen the film explore the violence and depravity of the human race, but this was just stupid. There are better ways.

Rise of the Planet of Apes is an above average film, but it didn’t come together quite the way it should have—and that’s a shame. If certain aspects of the production would have been changed or tweaked, it could have been a great piece of science fiction. Instead, it’s a pretty good movie that turned out to be a missed opportunity, but they were so close in many ways. And being so close to greatness only makes its faults standout even more. When the film was working, it was exciting, emotional, and engaging. When the film was bad, it made your eyes roll. The film was simultaneously marvelously smart and disappointingly dumb. (Bipolar would the best way to describe it: its highs were high, and its lows were low.)

Fortunately, the film worked more than it didn’t. However, the negative aspects were so glaring that they tainted the overall product. The screenplay should have gone through a couple of more rewrites. The first act should have been totally thrown out or completely restructured. The melodrama needed to be contained. More time should have been spent with the apes. The human characters needed to be presented as complicated and conflicted people and not as simple-minded archetypes. The human characters also should have been shown as more sadistic and cruel, which would not only have been more realistic, but also would have given the ape revolution a more salient sense of urgency. James Franco and Tom Felton shouldn’t have been let onto the set, and, most importantly, the film missed a real chance to follow in the footsteps of the five original films to bring up serious sociopolitical issues and to make some sort of statement (like the more recent and superior District 9). Sadly, while some issues were there, they were left in the background—taking a backseat to forced scenes involving unnecessary, unsatisfying, and hackneyed relationships.

Personally, I felt that it would have been more interesting to explore just how far drug companies will go to make a profit, the comprehensive ethical dilemma of animal testing, or a “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” comment concerning the exploitation of the working class would have been nice. Instead, we got a movie that took its situations seriously enough, but seemed to ignore its bigger ideas.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was not a terrible film, but Caesar and his revolution deserved much better.

Rating:  3.5 out of 5

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