RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – the new chapter in the PLANET OF THE APES series of films – is is an attempt by 20th Century Fox to breathe new life into the venerable franchise. This was a daunting task in that the film had to be done in such a way as to appeal to contemporary movie audiences, and yet also resonate with fans of the forty-three year-old Apes mythology. Thankfully, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does not disappoint; it is a solid science fiction film that contributes fresh material to the PLANET OF THE APES canon.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES takes place in the present in California’s Bay Area. Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) works for Gene-Sys, a biomedical company, where he has completed medical testing on a chimpanzee for a new drug, ALZ-112, which allows the brain to heal itself, offering a number of promising applications, particularly for patients with Alzheimer’s disease. Due to the death (during a disastrous attempt to court investors to bring the drug to clinical trials) of “Bright Eyes,” the chimpanzee used for testing of the drug, Rodman secretly takes her newborn baby into his home after the board of Gen-Sys decides that it will no longer fund this medical research. He soon discovers that the enhanced mental abilities of the mother have been passed along genetically to Caesar, the chimp child.
As Caesar grows physically, so do his cognitive abilities, including not only his intelligence but also his self-awareness, and his feelings related to the complicated relationships with humans. As a result of protecting Rodman’s father, Charles (John Lithgow), from a neighbor during an altercation, Caesar is removed from Rodman’s home and placed in a facility for primates. During his captivity, Caesar comes to resent his lack of freedom and his inhumane treatment at the hands of his human captors. Consequently, he uses his mental capabilities to devise an escape, heading back to Rodman’s home where he steals canisters of the mind-enhancing ALZ-112 to give to his fellow prisoner primates at the facility. He then leads an escape of the apes, gathering more recruits from Gen-Sys and a local zoo, creating an army of simians in revolt against their human captors. As RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES concludes, Caesar and his group of apes find freedom in a Bay Area forest, while the viral wheels set in motion for the decline of the human race suggest the future rise of the ape civilization envisioned in the original 1968 PLANET OF THE APES (although in that case, the cause was nuclear destruction rather than biomedically-induced self-annihilation).
As mentioned in the introduction, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES was a risky project; odds were that it would be mediocre at best, a failure at worst. Although classic science fiction films have been remade or reimagined successfully at times (e.g., John Carpenter’s 1982 redo of THE THING), more often than not they are seriously lacking, and this was specifically the case in a previous attempt with the Apes franchise (Tim Burton’s 2001 version of PLANET OF THE APES).
The bar was set high in 1968. The original PLANET OF THE APES combined a number of elements to make science fiction history. These included good source material in Pierre Boulle’s novel, Monkey Planet, a solid screenplay by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, A-list actors including Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, John Chamber’s groundbreaking makeup effects, Jerry Goldsmith’s daring score, and Franklin Schaffner’s diection. In addition, the story interacted with cultural and social anxieties and issues of the late 1960s, including the potential for nuclear annihilation, racism, as well as evolution and religious fundamentalism. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has continued in this vein, not only providing amazingly realistic apes through its motion-capture CGI, but also by combining the special effects with contemporary cultural issues, including biomedical ethics and non-human animal rights. In this way, the film provides something for those looking for more than a summer thrill, as well as for those interested in speculative fiction as a foil for social reflection and commentary.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES also gives evidence of a solid awareness of and respect for the PLANET OF THE APES mythology. At several points, the new film provides nods and a collective homage to the original PLANET OF THE APES and its sequels from the 1970s. A handful of dialogue lines are taken from PLANET OF THE APES, the names of some of the characters and objects from PLANET OF THE APES are found in the reboot, and the television screens in the primate facility quickly flash an image of Charlton Heston. In addition, the storyline and visuals include elements that tie RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES into the mythology established in the previous films. This is found in many of Caesar’s experiences at the hands of his human captors, which mirror those of the astronaut Taylor in PLANET OF THE APES, a brief television news flash about a U.S. spacecraft lost in space which will become the ship that returns in the future to find an earth ruled by apes, as well as the scenes involving the law enforcement officers on horseback battling the apes on the Golden Gate Bridge, which suggest both the imagery of Taylor’s first encounter with the apes PLANET OF THE APES and the symbols of the police state found in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, of which RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES serves as a fresh reinterpretation.
Commentators have long noted that the original PLANET OF THE APES includes social commentary on race. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does not include much by way of this element, except for brief glimpses that can be read into the final scene of confrontation between the police and the apes, which brings to mind memories of racial riots of the late 1960s. Perhaps the lack of inclusion of this element of social commentary indicates that our culture has come quite a way in race relations since the main thrust of cultural critique is found elsewhere in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
One cultural issue that receives special focus in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the issue of non-human animal rights. This finds graphic representation in a number of ways, from the opening scene in which Caesar’s mother is taken from her home in the jungle to the Gen-Sys labs, to the cruelty at the supposed sanctuary for primates. decades after the first PLANET OF THE APES film (which itself may be read as having something to say about animal testing through ape civilization conducting barbaric experiments on mute humans), RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES updates this topic and presents us with evidence of a greater concern on the part of many in Western culture in regard to their relationship, indeed kinship, with other creatures in the biosphere.
If criticism is to be offered of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, it is slight, at least from this reviewer. The focus is rightly on Caesar and his developing relationship with the apes that he will lead to revolt, but the film might have been strengthened with additional scenes in which Rodman and various medical colleagues debate the issues surrounding ethics in more depth beyond its brief mention. Such a discussion would seem especially relevant to our society’s ongoing debates about stem cell research and other biomedical issues such as the recent news announcement that British scientists have secretly created animal-human hybrid embryos.
With many of the positive initial reviews of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, some discussion has ensued on the Internet as to whether this film presents another indication of a possible tendency for increased frequency in the production of intelligent science fiction films. In recent years, audiences have been able to benefit from films like DISTRICT 9, MOON, SPLICE, MONSTERS, and SOURCE CODE. These thoughtful science fiction films do not mean that action-oriented space opera is going extinct any time soon, but they do provide hope that thought-provoking science fiction may arise more frequently.
The storyline for RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES leaves the door open for new chapters in the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, and Rupert Wyatt, the film’s director, has talked about his openness to a sequel. The work of Gen-Sys has provided the APES mythology with a new genesis that cries out for additions to the ape’s cinematic sacred scrolls. The opening weekend’s box office surpassed studio expectations, but it remains to be seen whether the overall financial results will give 20th Century Fox reason to further develop one of the earliest and most successful science fiction franchises in motion picture history. Given the strength of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, there is reason to be optimistic that thoughtful cinefantastique – with the ability to make us reflect on the difficult questions of our time – can compete with youth-oriented stories about young wizards and glittering vampires. Regardless, I take my hat off to those who brought RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to the screen. Despite my serious skepticism before hand, 20th Century Fox was able to rekindle my inner “damn dirty ape” and remind me why the PLANET OF THE APES mythology has held my fascination for over four decades.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (20th Century Fox; released August 5, 2011). Directed by Rupert Wyatt, Screenplay by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle. Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowa, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Jewlett.