MOVIE REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Human see, human do. This sums up the tenuous depth of character in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an uninspired but competently made prequel to 1968’s Planet of the Apes. For a film about the downfall of modern civilization, it’s somewhat necessary to care about those who are slowly making our apocalypse a reality. Yet, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is content to veil the more complex moral and ethical questions behind a simplistic cause-and-effect plot. The wonderfully realized special effects and action scenes are just momentary bumps in the road for an otherwise talky melodrama between dim-witted people and absurdly smart primates.
Mankind’s DOA status starts at the top of the Hollywood food chain. James Franco delivers his best sleepwalking impression as Will Rodman, a hotshot young scientist experimenting on apes to find a cure for Alzheimer’s in San Francisco. During a particularly important meeting with corporate handlers, Will’s primary test subject, Bright Eyes (one of the many nods to the original), is violently killed in a tragic mishap, rendering moot all his promising data. Will discovers that Bright Eyes died protecting her newborn baby, who’s inherited his mother’s incredible genetic cocktail. Will takes the young chimp home, names him Caesar, and builds a friendly sanctuary with ropes and beams in his suburban house. He even dresses Caesar in human clothes and lets him swing free atop the Redwoods. To say this situation is a recipe for disaster would be an understatement.
Caesar’s enclosed world of peace and quiet eventually spills out into the volatile streets when the ape’s curiosity for life beyond the windowsill becomes too much to bear. This clash between genetic engineering and abrasive human nature puts in motion what has been inevitable since the very moment Will swayed into the realm of bad science hoping to cure his ailing musician father (John Lithgow). The tide permanently changes when Caesar, now locked up in a prison-cell posing as an animal sanctuary, decides to take action and infuse fellow apes with the same gene therapy his mother received so many years before. When the legion of apes fulfills the promise of the film’s title, Will helplessly watches his personal indecisions produce mass catastrophe.
As if to capitalize on the potential of sequels, the downfall of man is not fully solidified in the film’s breakneck final action sequence through the streets of San Francisco; just hinted at. Thankfully, during the climax Wyatt finally breaks away from the plodding human characters for an open arena of widescreen action, with chimps, gorillas, and orangutans gracefully swinging from the rafters of iconic city landmarks, finally using the Golden Gate Bridge like a giant jungle gym. S.W.A.T. and police stare headfirst into the fog anticipating the ape’s headfirst assault, only to get flanked from every other direction high and low. It’s a majestic cinematic moment in an otherwise forgettable reboot, and perfectly communicates the debilitating limited perspective of every human in the film.
Unfortunately, the lack of palpable emotion makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes just another toothless summer blockbuster despite it's action pleasures. It’s hard not to yearn for Charlton Heston’s powder keg performance in the original film, which reaches uncomfortable levels of rage early and often. Here, Franco can’t even muster more than the occasional octave-raising shout, and he becomes a lifeless masthead for a sinking human race mired in caricature. In this topsy-turvey world of corporate malfeasance and human passivity, the apes win by default.