What impressed me the most about Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011), a restart of the Planet of the Apes franchise, was the sheer effort that the writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and director, Rupert Wyatt, exerted to make the apocalyptic future contained in the original Planet of the Apes (1968) plausible. Sure, humans may doom themselves through a sour cocktail of hubris and stupidity, but the notion that apes, severely threatened and endangered, would become the planet’s preeminent species is almost unfathomable.
I can only assume that the mighty effort behind the narrative logistics of Rise of the Planet of the Apes occurred when two friends sat around drinking and discussing movies. When one friend claimed that Planet of the Apes was an incredible science fiction film that issued a proper warning about humanity’s fragile and tenuous place on earth, the other friend, who just happened to be a primate zoologist, grew indignant and said the movie was dumb because apes would never evolve in such a way. Non-primate zoologist friend then became insulted and vowed to prove to his primate zoologist friend that, yes, it would be possible for apes to evolve and take over the planet. So I tip my cap to you, non-primate zoologist friend, for going to such great lengths to show how the world into which Charlton Heston stumbled could become a reality.
The film’s narrative, which effectively allows us to see how Earth will become the planet of the apes, consists of two related events. First, humans test a drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s disease on chimpanzees and other apes. This testing makes the chimps and other apes as smart as humans, if not smarter. Second, the drug, while creating super smart apes, makes humans super sick and, eventually, super dead. Without a cure, the disease quickly becomes a global pandemic, nearly eliminating humans and thus creating the space for a small band of highly intelligent apes to rule over all of Earth.
While I suppose that the narrative makes as much sense as any Planet of the Apes prequel could, it seems only half complete. At the end of the film, the planet of the apes has not yet risen. The job is not done. And yet that is what we want to see. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an amazing exercise in pretext, but I actually wanted some “text” without the “pre.” Unfortunately, this prequel simply does not provide it. The concept might have worked more effectively as an AMC series spread out over 20 to 30 episodes. At least then there could have been space and time to simultaneously illustrate humanity’s downfall and ascendancy of other primates.
The film also fails to provide any reason to become invested in and like any single (human) character. All are rather flat, unmoving, and unremarkable. James Franco, who can be charming and clever, displays none of those qualities in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Franco’s character, Will Rodman, is the scientist who attempts to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, which has ravaged his father, played rather generically by John Lithgow. This father-son relationship only serves as the pretext for the pretext of creating intelligent apes, and it comes off poorly.
Even more heavy-handed than a scientist son trying to save his father with unsound medical ethics was the love story involving Rodman and the veterinarian, Caroline Aranha, who cares for Rodman’s chimp, Caesar, the one who eventually leads the simian revolt. Freida Pinto, who plays Aranha, is completely wasted. I have never seen a more blatant attempt at forcing a love story into a film than this one. Rodman’s and Aranha’s romance appears so awkward and unconvincing that it almost comes off as ironic satire about the heavy-handedness that Hollywood uses to push love stories when they are neither needed nor necessary. The romance is actually quite insulting. Both the romantic relationship and the father-son relationship taste like some awful fastfood meal whose only quality is that it is (barely) edible. Even the actors seem bored with these two trite storylines.
It appears as though the actors and director, much like the audience, were merely waiting for the final scenes of the film where the apes throw spears and destroy helicopters. And while the action sequences are semi-juvenile and predictable, they at least contain some liveliness and emotion. Thankfully, the film definitely has a much different pace over the final twenty minutes or so. The CGI and special effects were not ham handed or overused. Much like a Peter Jackson or Guillermo Del Toro film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wove its computer animated creatures rather seamlessly into the whole, and the film made us care much more about them than their human counterparts, who far too often felt like flat, two-dimensional objects. It is a rather sad commentary that the most visibly human face, the face that contains the most emotion and depth, is that of a computer animated chimpanzee.
The humanity of the apes did make me feel invested in watching how they would outmaneuver and outsmart the San Francisco Police Department. (By the way, how can an action film be set in San Francisco and not contain a single decent car chase over the steep inclines and declines? When Clint Eastwood dies, he will roll over in his grave.) I had some trepidation about rooting for the apes in the climactic battle. After all, an ape victory would signal the demise of my own species, but if this represents the apex of human filmmaking, then maybe we should admit defeat and hand over the reins to our future simian overlords.