SPOILER WARNING: The following review/discussion contains spoilers for the whole movie since it’s a couple of years old and I felt like telling the whole story was the best way to talk about what didn’t work. But yeah. Short version: I didn’t think it was a very good movie.
A couple years back Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out as a reboot of the titular franchise. I wasn’t interested at the time although I heard a lot of good things about it from a plethora of people. Critics liked it and so did average filmgoers. Now the sequel is coming out and I thought the previews for that looked kinda cool so it was about time for me to see this good film I missed.
But it’s not a good movie. Why did everyone say it was? Why did you lie to me, General Consensus?
I think what we’ve got here is a case of extremely low expectations. Nobody expected much from a new Planet of the Apes film. Sure, the original is a classic, but it’s incredibly corny now. The last film to bear the Apes title was Tim Burton’s 2001 remake which is regarded as one of his worst movies.
Nobody expected Rise of the Planet of the Apes with its cumbersome title to be any good. When the movie did hit, it wasn’t ultra corny and everyone called it a success.
There are a lot of problems that prevent Rise from being truly entertaining which is about all I feel you can ask of this premise. Predictability is probably the chief factor. Anyone who hasn’t seen the 1968 original film is spoiling one of cinema’s great twist endings by watching this. Anyone who has, already knows where this is going so the only surprise is how we get there.
As it turns out, we get there in a very paint-by-numbers, predictable manner. There are almost no surprises at all, really.
Our protagonist is some science guy played by James Franco. He works for a biotech company where he is trying to cure Alzheimer’s and other brain diseases. He’s invented a drug which enables the brain to repair itself. When tested on apes, it not only repairs brain damage, but makes the apes more intelligent.
So now, according to modern cinema, if you try to cure cancer you end up creating a zombie virus, and if you try to cure Alzheimer’s you end up with apes taking over the planet. I wonder what horrible disaster would happen if they cured the common cold in a movie?
The Alzheimer’s cure is a good hook. My family’s been touched by the disease and it’s a terrible thing so I can really sympathize with Franco trying to come up with a cure for his father. It makes sense the character would be desperate and maybe do some things that a responsible scientist shouldn’t in order to speed up the process.
The experiments go awry and James Franco’s boss, Mr. Corporate Suit Man, tells Franco he’s got to put all the apes down. As it turns out, one of the apes had a baby and Franco can’t bare to kill it. Instead, he takes it home and raises it. As the offspring of one of the test monkeys, the baby, which Franco names Caesar, has traces of the smart drug in him. He also shows signs of great intelligence – unlike nearly everyone else in this movie.
At this point in the script, the writers decided that Franco needed a girlfriend, but for the life of me I can’t figure out why she’s in this movie. Seriously, this is one of the most useless characters I’ve seen in a long time. I don’t even remember them saying her name at any point.
If you’re on the We Need More Strong Female Characters bandwagon (I just think we need more good characters in general) this is exactly the sort of character you’d complain about and rightfully so in this instance. She’s there because she’s pretty and we need someone for Franco to be with… I guess.
Insultingly they also made her an idiot.
She’s a primatologist and she can’t figure out that there’s something different about Caesar. Franco dates her for five years without telling her about Caesar’s origin. She seems shocked when Franco reveals that Caesar has been exposed to experimental smart drugs. Apparently she just thought he was an exceptionally well trained monkey… that could play chess.
This girlfriend character could have helped Franco study and train Caesar. She could have been helpful in finding the chimp when he goes missing later in the film. She could have scolded Franco for using a dangerous experimental drug on an animal which she clearly loves. She does none of those things. She’s not even a supporting character. She’s just there. It’s nice to see Freida Pinto, the Indian actress who played Latika in Slumdog Millionaire, getting more work, but this isn’t a good role by any stretch.
Franco gives his father the experimental drug after seeing how well it worked with Caesar. It cures him for awhile, but several years later the drug stops working and his dementia returns.
Eventually Caesar and Franco are separated after an altercation with a neighbor (it’s also nice to see David Hewlett who played Dr. Rodney McKay in the Stargate television shows getting work even though this role also sucks). Then the movie turns into an ape version of every prison movie ever.
Caesar is beaten by the other inmates. Abused by the guards. Makes a single friend. Demonstrates his worth to the inmate population. Makes more friends. Becomes alpha male. Devises an escape plan. Gets revenge on the abusive guards and the warden.
The fact that this is played out by CGI apes does little to alleviate the fact that we’ve seen it before and we’ve seen it done with real characters.
The whole thing plays out almost like a parody of a prison movie. And tell me, how many people who work in animal control get sadistic enjoyment out of abusing the animals in their charge? I’m sure there are a few, but by and large people who regularly work with animals do so because they love animals. In this movie we get an abusive jerkface animal control guy so that we can paint Caesar and the other apes as victims.
Meanwhile on the outside, James Franco is trying to save his father and free Caesar. He tells Mr. Corporate Suit Man that the drug worked on his father and convinces him that he should fund the project again.
In an effort to make a version of the drug that doesn’t wear off, James Franco accidentally ends up creating a drug that just kills humans instead. It still makes monkeys smart and now it’s breathable so you can see where this is going. Hello worldwide pandemic.
Franco gets very sad when his dad dies and I guess he decides to give up on the whole science thing. He tells Mr. Corporate Suit Man that the drug doesn’t work properly. But Mr. Corporate Suit Man who was cautious before, now decides that he’s going to behave like a proper Evil Capitalist. Mr. Suit orders that they make MOAR DRUGS THAT KILL PEOPLE because it’ll make him MONIES.
Franco refuses because this is clearly a stupid thing to do. Mr. Corporate Suit Man threatens Franco’s career pointing out that he knows Franco gave his father the experimental drug illegally, but Franco just quits instead.
You know, kids, giving someone a highly experimental drug without their consent won’t just ruin your exciting career in the field of fake movie science – it’ll actually land you in prison for a good long while. I guess Mr. Suit didn’t think to use that as a threat or James Franco just didn’t care.
By this time, Caesar and his merry band of smart monkeys have broken out of Ape Alcatraz and are rampaging through the city on their way to the biotech lab. For intelligent apes, they throw themselves through an awful lot of plate glass windows for no reason. Those can hurt quite a lot unless you’re made out of zeros and ones and shielded with plot armor.
Caesar frees the apes from the lab and the San Francisco Zoo and tries to escape the city across the Golden Gate Bridge. In our obligatory climactic set piece battle, the intelligent human beings decide to send guys on horseback with nightsticks to round up the apes.
Now just think about that plan for two seconds.
There’s a hundred rampaging apes coming across a bridge and your weapon of choice is a stick. It’s not even an electrified stick like jerkface animal control guy used earlier in the film and it’s certainly not a tranquilizer rifle like a sensible person would want.
We have now given this more logical thought than the filmmakers did. The apes deserve to win if humans are this stupid.
After that assault utterly fails because it was a HORRIBLE IDEA, a couple of smart humans show up with a helicopter and a machine gun. One of the apes sacrifices himself and takes down the chopper which has Mr. Corporate Suit Man on it for some reason. I guess he needed a comeuppance for unleashing the worldwide human-killing pandemic. And being a greedy capitalist.
James Franco follows the apes into the redwoods where he meets Caesar and tries to convince him to return home with him which is almost as stupid as the nightstick guys. James, I think they might find Caesar if he were staying with you. You kinda invented the smart drug.
Caesar, who has developed the ability to speak, tells Franco that his home is here, among the apes. Then the movie just ends. It’s a really sudden and unsatisfying resolution to a really unsatisfying movie.
This movie basically takes a premise that can be grasped in two minutes (i.e. apes become smart and self aware because of wonder drugs) and explains it for almost two hours. And that’s all this movie is. It’s a premise; not a conclusion. It’s single chapter in a franchise, sure. But when we’re talking about an entire film each chapter ought to be satisfying on its own. This simply isn’t.
Rise wants you to focus on the supposedly heartwarming relationship between Caesar and James Franco. That didn’t really work for me because they don’t spend enough time together to really give a sense of bonding and attachment. The movie is too concerned with moving the plot forward to really commit to the character moments few and far between as they are.
If a film is going to be plot-driven and lacking in characters like Rise of Planet of the Apes, the least it can do is create an interesting plot that doesn’t require its characters to act stupidly. It is not interesting, surprising, or especially fun. It gives us bland stock characters with which to experience bland stock scenes.
The film really wants you to sympathize with the apes as victims and thanks to some pretty good effects work and a performance by motion capture master Andy Serkis, it almost works. But the apes are the villains of the original films so why cast them as the heroes in this movie? Moral ambiguity does not suit this franchise well, at least not at present. The writing is nowhere near strong enough for that.
Ultimately we have a movie that’s trying to be a heartwarming animal story; a sci-fi franchise prequel/reboot; and a popcorn flick. It does none of those things particularly well.