To say that I was a fan of the Planet of the Apes films when I was a kid would be a massive understatement. The clash between man and ape was not only entertaining and thought-provoking, but spawned a merchandising bonanza that I happily participated in. From lunch boxes to action figures, coloring books to trading cards – yours truly gobbled it all up hook, line, and sinker.
In revisiting the original classic, Planet of the Apes (1968), you might be surprised to see how long and deliberate the set up to the civilization clash was. First we see a quartet of astronauts, led by Moses himself (the king of melodrama Charlton Heston), in deep sleep as their shuttle splashes into the ocean. Then a dramatic escape followed by an arduous search for vegetation and water resulting in a euphoric skinny dip.
…clothes snatched by mysterious hands, feet running through woods, chaos all around as indigenous folk scramble frantically, an ominous horn blows in the distance – and finally…
…Heston looks up and sees a gorilla on horseback. A gorilla on horseback? WTH!?!?! Dramatic camera push. Cut back to Chucky’s disbelief.
Very cool moment worthy of a long set up. Granted, you can only get that moment once, but it went a long way to transporting movie audiences into the sci-fi world of Planet of the Apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is well made and somewhat entertaining, but it lacks any of the magic of the original and ends up coming off as a tepid and unimaginative remake of The Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1971), the film in the series that establishes how the primates turned the table on the humans and began their ascension.
James Franco plays ‘Will Rothman,’ a scientist on the verge of a medical breakthrough in his Alzheimer’s research. A drug he has been testing on apes has shown significant enough results that he approaches his corporate board and announces he is ready for human trials. Not so fast, Franco.
His prime chimp guinea pig, ‘Bright Eyes’ (Heston’s nickname in the original), goes bananas and crashes into his pitch meeting and starts thrashing about, thus setting him and his hopes of curing Alzheimer’s back to square one. But he does come away from the fiasco with a new pet. You see, ‘Bright Eyes’ was pregnant and now ‘Will’ gets to raise the orphan primate on his own – that is, until gorgeous fellow scientist Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) conveniently falls for the shaggy genius and weds him, giving ‘Caesar’ the chosen chimp a nuclear family.
These nods to prior Planet of the Apes films are strategic and aimed at connecting dots for those of us who have actually seen them. Much like the Star Wars saga, the films were released out of chronological sequence, asking that fans piece together the Human-Ape-Human-Ape logic of the narrative. It was enough to give even Charles Darwin a headache. But it held up somehow, and the charisma and focus of wonderful actors like Ricardo Montalban, Roddy McDowell, and Kim Hunter made us care about their story.
James Franco has really found his groove the past few years, becoming one of the more interesting and likeable actors working in film (and tv’s General Hospital) today. Unfortunately, Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not capitalize on Franco’s trademark light touch and slight smirk. In fact, I can’t really recall one memorable moment of his from this film. What a shame.
While the climactic ape jailbreak scene reminded me too much of Jumanji (1995), the special effects are good. The script, however, is not. The majority of human characters are one-dimensional, sadistic primate haters (Brian Cox) who sneer and shout every chance they get, setting up contrived conflicts that demand our sympathy rather than earn our trust.
Holding a lock in at your house and watching all of the original Planet of the Apes films might not be a weekend well spent – and I can’t really even recommend the 2001 Mark Wahlberg effort, although that one at least had a memorable villain in Tim Roth – but to understand what all the fuss was about you will at least need to get on board with Charlton Heston and go check out the Statue of Liberty.