The original Planet of the Apes is one of the best science fiction movies ever made because it took a B-movie idea and turned it into something more. It battled themes of science vs. religion and took a bold stance, that intellectual progression was being impeded by archaic religious thought. It’s a controversial idea, but it’s nevertheless an interesting one and it can be argued that such a thing is still happening even today. The movies that followed dealt with intolerance, slavery, and the perpetuation of war, criticizing those who worship the bomb (a theme made perhaps a bit too literal in the second film), among others. All of this derived from a single creative concept: what if apes were the dominant species? The newest film in the series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, tries to tackle heavy issues, but lacks the profundity of its predecessors. What it amounts to is simply another summer movie spectacle, but at least it’s a good one.
The film begins prior to the events of the first film (and disregards the rest). Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on an experiment drug known as ALZ-112. It’s a rebuilding drug that he hopes will be able to cure certain mental ailments, such as Alzheimer’s, which his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is suffering from. To test the drug, he and his co-workers experiment on apes, which ends up yielding positive results. With only one small dose, the apes are able to intelligently reason. It appears they are getting smarter. One day, however, something goes wrong and Chimp #9 goes berserk in front of the company’s board of directors, effectively shutting down the experiments. What they don’t realize is that the ape was only protecting her newborn son, afraid he would receive the same painful treatment. She dies, but her son, eventually named Caesar (Andy Serkis in a motion capture performance), is taken home by Will, who realizes that the drug was passed down hereditarily. As the years go by, Caesar becomes smarter and smarter, eventually leading to a revelation and beginning the rise of the apes.
Though sometimes billed as a prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more a reboot of the series, or even a reimagining of the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which tackled similar territory, but it’s different enough that it can skillfully stand alone. It could almost entirely exist outside of the rest of the series had it not been for a couple of nods to the original film, one humorous and welcome and one so blatantly out of place it pulls you out of the movie (though it really shouldn’t come as a surprise). It takes a couple of things from Conquest, namely the ape being walked around on a leash and treated like a pet, but otherwise, it’s totally different, and that’s a good thing because Conquest is one of the worst in the series.
What the movie does so beautifully is make us understand why Caesar comes to act the way he does. He isn’t treated well and, though it suffers from exaggerated cruelty from a few human characters, the film does a good job of making us sympathize with the apes and root against our own species. Some of Caesar’s action, which become more and more humanlike as the movie goes on, will come off as cheesy to some, if the constant snickering in my screening is any indication, but I found his decisions to be hard hitting and narratively necessary. Rise does a great job of establishing the effects of the drug that has been coursing through his body since birth, so of course he’s going to learn human behavior. It takes the phrase “monkey see, monkey do” to a whole new level.
The few times it gets a bit too silly for its own good are in its use of subtitles when the apes sign to each other, which are dumbed down to sound prehistoric (“Human no like smart ape”), and when Caesar essentially becomes a rebellious teenager, like in one scene where he defiantly pushes his plate of food away after being told to eat it. But on the whole, Rise of the Planet of the Apes should be taken as a serious, dramatic movie that can be interpreted in one of two ways: as a message about playing God or as one against animal testing. The problem is it thinks it’s profound, when it really isn’t. The former message is cliché and overheard while the latter is preachy and laughable. I wouldn’t say this is a particularly deep movie; it’s just well made and interesting. It’s a disappointment to be sure, but it had lofty expectations to live up to. The fact that it’s still pretty good is something for which to be grateful.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes receives 3.5/5