Rise of the Planet of the Apes runs into an immediate hurdle. One of the best things about The Planet of the Apes was its ambiguity, reveling in a powerful final image that didn’t really need explaining. It was a film built on subtext, the story bearing a sort of universal depth that can be relevant regardless of time period. This prequel takes away the ambiguity, telling a pretty silly story about the perils of science gone mad. Though the technology of the film is intriguing, the story and its themes just don’t work.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on gene therapy that could potentially cure Alzheimer’s. His presentation to the board goes wrong when his most promising chimp test subject goes nuts and attacks people. His experiment is shut down, but it turns out that the chimp was only being aggressive because it was protecting its baby. Will takes the baby chimp home, and discovers that it has amazing intelligence. Years later, the chimp, now named Caesar, is becoming unsatisfied with his limited existence. It isn’t long before Caesar gets himself in trouble, placing him in a position to use his intelligence in dangerous ways.
The thing about the movie is that it relies on humans being completely passive. The lead character Will Rodman is supposed to be a brilliant scientist, but important things seem to occur to him much later than necessary. It all comes off as pretty contrived. How is it that he never notices that his lead test subject is pregnant? When he realizes that his father’s Alzheimer’s is becoming worse than ever, why does he leave him alone? Why doesn’t he test his colleague after he breathes in an experimental and potentially dangerous gas? Why is it a gas anyway? The film moves heaven and earth in order to put its pieces into place, which really makes one wonder about the worth of the entire endeavor.
This film changes a lot of things about the original movie, all the while trying very hard to maintain a perceived connection to it. We see the Icarus take off on their mission to Mars. We hear someone say “get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape.” The titles even replicate the font of the original titles. But the film ignores the original’s anti-war sentiment and plays as a scientific morality tale. It’s a weird theme. Was Rodman never supposed to research a cure for Alzheimer’s? One of the characters says that there are some things that aren’t meant to be controlled, chastising the main character for pushing his experiments. This is a weird stance for a film that takes its roots from a science fiction story.
The strongest aspect of the film lies in the apes themselves, none of which are actual apes. The film uses motion capture and CGI to bring life to the titular apes, with Andy Serkis putting in a typically fantastic physical performance for the lead ape Caesar. Even without dialogue, Serkis gets his point across, his facial expressions coming through the CGI. James Franco is always a solid performer, but here he seems a little perplexed. Frieda Pinto shows up in one of the most extraneous roles in a blockbuster in recent memory.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes represents a lot of what’s gone wrong in Hollywood over the last decade. The action sequences hint at the possibility of a better film, one that’s less concerned with bunk science and plot contrivance. But studios are afraid to release new, original stories, and have to attach everything to an existence franchise. And so, we get an origin story that no one really asked for, begging to be connected to a better film while undermining much of what that film established. It’s clear that the filmmakers weren’t equipped to do this story. They should’ve done something else.