We all know the story behind the “Planet of the Apes” franchise. Apes turn smart. Apes unite. Apes rise up. Apes kill all the humans and take over the world. The surviving humans degenerate into mute, mentally disabled clowns who fling their feces at passing apes. Traditionally, it’s a tale of irony and self-destruction, with a lot of darkness and despair brewing beneath the surface. But in its latest attempt at a franchise reboot, Fox turns this premise on its head, releasing a heavy-handed, 105-minute PETA commercial in which the schoolyard bully — humanity — gets what it deserves.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
At Quality 16 and Rave
20th Century Fox
Our hippy liberal tale of clichéd revelry begins in the big wild jungle, where the evil humans from the faceless drug conglomerate kidnap apes to do mean evil experiments on. Well, not all the humans are evil. Researcher Will Rodman (James Franco, “127 Hours”) is actually a pretty cool guy, who just wants to find an Alzheimer’s cure so his daddy doesn’t start pushing up daisies. Less cool are Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, TV’s “MI-5”), the head of giant conglomerate, who (gasp!) wants his investment to turn a profit, and animal “trainer” Dodge Landon (Tom Felton, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2”), who (less sarcastic gasp!) tortures captive apes for his sadistic pleasure.
From there, we get a fairly rote, predictable story in the same vein as the original all-the-humans-die premise, with a few preachy tropes in between about how some things aren’t meant to be changed. Meanwhile, the entire cast does its best to deliberately shred audience sympathy. Felton is particularly hateable, giving the same, bratty, immature performance we’ve seen him give eight times as Draco Malfoy. Franco, who is supposedly the human center of the film, gives a flat, indifferent performance, less Oscar-nominee and more stoned Oscar host.
The apes are what save the movie, making up for the emotional dead weight of the human characters. Caesar, Rodman’s primary test subject, is a marvel of modern effects technology. He’s played by motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis, who brought King Kong to life in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake and voiced Gollum in Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, and for all intents and purposes, looks like a real captive ape. But he’s also more than that. Despite his simian origins, he’s the most humanized character in the entire cast. His struggle for freedom is a visceral tale, told efficiently through actions and with a minimum of cheesy talking-animal dialogue. We bond with Caesar. We cringe as he’s tortured in captivity, we smile as he develops a paternal relationship with Rodman and we cheer when he inevitably succeeds.
But therein also lies the film’s greatest weakness. As the climax approaches and an assembled primate army faces off against heavily-armed SWAT teams, we realize that we’ve been cheering on the extinction of the human race, which the story treats as just vengeance for researchers who are callously trying to save lives. The best propaganda is restrained — we adapt the director’s point of view without consciously realizing it’s the director’s point of view. And as chimps scream and helicopters explode, it becomes obvious that the film is anything but subtle.