Making a prequel to one of the most iconic films, and a franchise so firmly embedded in popular culture that it’s practically an emblem of geekdom? They might as well have worn a placard around their necks saying, “PAN ME.”
Planet of the Apes (1968) begins with Charlton Heston and his fellow astronauts waking up from suspended animation which lasted for two millennia. They land on an alien planet populated by wild, mute humans and intelligent, civilized, talking apes who are the dominant species on the planet. The apes are surprised to find intelligent humans and feel threatened by them. Heston finally escapes to a region which contains evidence of an older, now-extinct civilization. There he realises that he was on Earth all this time. Humanity had utterly destroyed itself, and a new species stepped up to take their place. It’s a devastating, bleak ending and easily one of the greatest moments in cinema.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a lot of difficult questions to answer: what happened during the time the astronauts were in suspended animation? How did 6 billion people, skyscrapers and other human paraphernalia disappear? And more importantly, how did the apes get so damned smart? I’ll give them this much: they did attempt to address these questions. And yes, they employed oodles of Movie Science, which is perfectly acceptable, to a limit. But when handy, spray-on versions of super-intelligence virus/drugs appear, you know they’ve gone too far.
James Franco plays a brilliant young scientist who is conducting animal trials for an Alzheimer’s disease cure by employing the same plot device as the scientists in Deep Blue Sea: injecting Science into an animal (chimpanzees in this movie) to make it smart. Due to an accident, the project is terminated and all the chimps are killed, except for one. Franco takes the baby chimp, Caesar, home and brings him up as a child. As Caesar grows up to be something of a genius, he realises that he’s an oddity and there’s no place in the world for him. It is when he breaks out of his comfortable family circle that the dominant-subservient relationship between humans and animals is revealed to him.
If the entire movie had been about Caesar’s attempt to understand and reconcile himself with the world, it would’ve been an instant sci-fi classic. Caesar’s character was clearly modelled on Charlton Heston’s character and the original Caesar from the franchise. The confusion, alienation from one’s own species, the inability to be understood despite being able to communicate all provided so much potential for a great film, but were given short shrift in order to concentrate on monkey fight sequences. What started off as a sensitive portrayal of Caesar’s relationship with humanity, became a frenzy of idiotic scenes, each trying to top the other in WTF-ness. At one point, all the apes in an animal rescue shelter began to take on prison movie personalities: the Newbie, the Morgan Freeman, the Silent Giant from Minority Community, the Sadist and the Sullen Ex-Leader. And this wasn’t even close to being the silliest part of the film.
Hollywood screenwriters, you cannot squeeze 2000 years into a movie, unless you are Stanley Kubrick. Just because evolution is achingly slow and not the stuff the average movie-goer wants to see, doesn’t mean you should squeeze it into 15 minutes either. Even Movie Science will not stretch that far.
As for the actors, all of them ranged between passable to meh, mostly because their roles did not ask for more. Tom Felton and Freida Pinto had very, uh… “flexible” accents, Franco was competent and John Lithgow was (predictably) one of the brighter spots in this stupidfest of a film.
And I cannot stress on this point enough: there were far far FAR too many references to the movie franchise. Easter eggs are fun for all ages but peppering each page of the script with “tributes” got annoying and took away from the serious atmosphere they tried to create. The first one you spot is cute, but after that, the sheer number of references spirals into good-lord-not-another territory.
Unexplained questions are the hallmark of a good film. Inception was insanely awesome, because it left enough space for rabid fans to spin conspiracy theories but otherwise covered its tracks well, plot-wise. Gigantic plot holes on the other hand, are the consequence of too little research and too much cocaine. Understandably, science fiction calls for a lot of audience imagination. We do not yet have the science to create credible futuristic technology, and I’m more than willing to look beyond that. Previously, films were happy to leave such technology as mere plot devices, and use the two hours to ponder on the consequences and ethics of such technology. These days, it feels like our infatuation with technology, our capabilities and CGI is the reason why science fiction films are just not working any more. They are too keen to provide answers for irrelevant questions that nobody is asking.
However, this film does leave you with that timeless question: Why don’t movie scientists believe in titanium/carbon nanotube reinforced cages?
Just for funsies.