*** WARNING: ‘ere be spoilers ***
Initially, I’d decided not to review this movie (which opened here in Denmark on August 4), as I didn’t feel there was much to say about it. But now I have been watching the old installments in the franchise (which I really should have done before watching the new one), and have a more qualified basis upon which to judge Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The story takes place in what we must assume to be the near future. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a prominent researcher at a pharmaceutical company where he is testing new Alzheimer’s drugs on chimpanzees. He has a personal stake in the research, as his father (the always excellent John Lithgow) is suffering from progressed Alzheimer’s, which has almost destroyed his memory. Rodman invents a drug that effectively cures Alzheimer’s, and – rather like a mad scientist – desperately tries it out on his father, who then regains his memory and normal functions. But the effect wears off, so Rodman has to tweak the drug, using chimps as guinea pigs. As a result, the next drug works very well on chimps but has very different effects on humans.
The chimp who receives the brunt of both the old and the new drug is Caesar. As problems with the new drug causes additional research into the drug to be abandoned, the newborn Caesar is taken home to be raised as a pet/child in the Rodman residence. Years pass, during which it is clear that Caesar has human-level intelligence, even though he can’t talk (wait for it…). After attacking an annoying neighbor, Caesar (who, to anybody but Rodman, his father and his girlfriend, is just an ape) is sent to an ape shelter where he encounters other (normal) apes, incl. a circus orangutang who knows sign language. Here, Caesar is humiliated by both the mean human tenders and the other apes, but he manages to escape and steal some canisters of the new drug, and returning to the shelter and administering it to the other apes!
All of a sudden being of near-human level intelligence, these apes get organized, are taught sign language by Caesar, and liberate themselves and the apes of the local zoo – with human authorities in hot pursuit. Action scenes ensue. Also, somewhere in the story we hear a news bulletin about the launch (or was it the mysterious loss…?) of the first manned flight to Mars. Hmm.
As I exited the cinema, I thought that this was a quite good, modernized prequel to the 1968 original which tied directly into it (the Mars flight being Taylor’s spaceship from the first movie). However, as I subsequently watched the old movies I realized that it’s not. Actually, the new movie is a reboot of the franchise, which just happens to have a haphazard mess of nostalgic references/homages to the characters and the plot points of several of the old movies.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an entertaining and well-produced sci-fi movie, on the face of it – but on closer analysis it has a bunch of problems, very related to those of the rest of the franchise. The big problem with the entire series of movies, in my view, is that they paint a very bleak picture of human nature. Humans are cruel and nasty and war-mongering, and although the apes revolt against this, they themselves turn out exactly the same way. So there’s not much light at the end of the tunnel. In the parts of the story where a better human nature might have shone through, the screenwriters opt to have the characters behave completely stupidly instead.
The main problem, as it often is with Hollywood sci-fi, is with the scientific aspects of the story. There are several examples of this in the latest movie. First, it is incontheivable for a scientist to keep and raise a human-level intelligence chimp as a pet or a family member without realizing that such a thing is an absolute world sensation which must become a proper subject of scientific investigation. Second, the first drug was basically a success, but was halted by the company board because Caesar’s mother had a fit of violence which was almost immediately determined to be a fit of protective maternity for her newborn baby rather than a violent effect of the drug. Hence, the board made a mindless ruling based on a ridiculous misunderstanding. Third, once Rodman developed the new and tweaked drug, the company CEO, who had completely rejected the previous drug, was suddenly super-enthusiastic about it for hardly any reason, while Rodman himself suddenly wanted to stop working on it for, again, hardly any reason (since the negative effects of the new drug had not become apparent at the time). Some crucial element of plot-logic self-destructed right there.
The other big problem that the new movie shares with the old ones is one of continuity. The sequence of events. The old movies try to comprise a kind of time-loop plot, where the travelling from the future into the past ends up causing the future. This of course leaves us with no first cause to set the ball rolling, and characters like Cornelius and Zira become their own ancestors. It’s the same trap the Terminator movies fell into (the terminator chip from the future came from the past, having been sent back from the future, where it was made from the version that was sent back to the past – so no one invented it originally!), and while some screenwriters seem to consider such a plot clever, the truth is that it is almost complete nonsense – I add the ”almost” qualifier because it is possible to do this plot well – as for instance novelist Julian May does in her Pliocene Exile series (not that May’s version of the plot makes complete sense, but it’s not complete nonsense, either).
The continuity problem stems from a really bad decision on the part of Charlton Heston. He didn’t want sequels, so when he reluctantly agreed to have a small role in the second movie (Beneath the Planet of the Apes, 1970) he demanded that the movie end by the Earth being destroyed (and by the hand of his own character, Taylor, too, which is enormously out of line with Taylor’s reaction at the end of the first movie, where he curses humans for making nuclear war – and then he himself ends up doing it! Puh-lease!). That’ll put an end to more sequels, he reasoned. No, that just meant that the next movies had to invent a time-travelling story that couldn’t possible make sense. That is, Heston’s decision succeeded only in making the stories of the sequels worse than they might otherwise have been.
And Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is based on plot points from those nonsensical sequels. The story in the new movie is a revised version of events referenced in the third and fourth of the old movies, Escape From the Planet of the Apes (1971) and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), regarding how the development from human planet to ape planet occurred. That’s too bad; if they wanted to reboot the franchise, why didn’t they come up with a new story instead? Okay, they wanted to indulge the fans, and okay, that same approach worked very well with TRON: Legacy (2010) and with Star Trek (2009), but lightning doesn’t strike, um, thrice. In my opinion, they should have given the story a major overhaul, and released it from the shackles of the old movies’ storylines.
Having said that, I did rather enjoy the new movie and its amazing special effects which, for once, were truly integral to the story and concept, and this reboot was quite a bit more watchable than all the other POTA installments except for the 1968 original – and possibly also except for Burton’s 2001 remake, which I like better than most, although it isn’t perfect. But perfect movies are few and far between, and to my mind none of the movies of this primate franchise reach that coveted level. Some of them are better than one would expect, esp. as regards acting and 1970s production values, but they fail on the story level. The new movie is dragged down by a handful of serious blunders, but other than that, I honestly liked it. It was better than we had any right to expect.
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Stars: James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto and others
Runtime: 105 min