It’s a strange wonder that Times’s Richard Corliss names The Rise of the Planet of the Apes “this year’s finest action movie.” The movie has been marketed as an action movie, and would do best as an action movie, but writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (both credited for The Hand that Rocks the Cradle and The Relic) have instead struck an unsuccessful balance between an action and a drama and completely fail to deliver any relevant cultural commentary as did the original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston.
If an action movie is defined by its action, then the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, in the simplest test, fails significantly. The trailer presents a captivating scene where a chimp rolls the smart-making chemical canisters along the primate cages, and we naturally assume that this comes from the early stages of the film – it is the catalyst, the beginning of the violent struggle – when it is in fact drawn from the final stages of the movie where the only notable action scenes await.
Instead of an action, we have a movie that feels more like a drama. Dr. Rodman (James Franco) is driven to find a cure for his father’s Alzheimer’s disease and, in testing for this, creates Caesar, a highly intelligent, genetically augmented chimp. Caesar is the central character of The Rise; and, after seeing the stages of his growth, it is his imprisonment, subjugation, and eventual abuse by humans that is meant to emotionally draw the audience in. And, although we are drawn in enough to care for Caesar and understand his revenge, it’s difficult to be very captivated by a computer-generated, non-speaking primate.
This flatness of character infects the other characters of the film far worse – as odd as that is. Dr. Rodman’s boss and girlfriend, the zookeepers, and other supporting characters are all markedly flat. Only Dr. Rodman himself fairs better, and his father (John Lithgow) and the head zookeeper (Brian Cox) manage some more depth by virtue of their physicality and expressiveness, ie, their excellent acting abilities. All in all, then, with cardboard characters the film doesn’t work as a drama, and without much conflict – especially the conflict we want to see between humans and primates – it fails to be very impactful as an action movie.
The most eerie silent point for The Rise is its absence of cultural commentary. This is, after all, what made the biggest mark on the original film. The final scene where Colonel George Taylor (Heston) falls onto his knees on the beach, seeing the statue of liberty and realizing that humans have destroyed themselves (“you blew it up! damn you all to hell!”) has been replayed and parodied so much mainly because it struck a note with the world (North) Americans lived in. On the heels of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the terrifying awareness that the world was, and will continue to be, on the lip of a nuclear war electrified that final scene in The Planet of the Apes.
In The Rise, the demise of humans is essentially accidental, a virtuously motivated mistake, even. In a time of alarm greater than the 60s – in the midst of ecological and economic collapse and regional upheaval – it seems almost harder to avoid touching upon a charged socio-cultural nerve than to touch upon one. Or perhaps it touches on another strain for America and the West: it exemplifies the psychological truth that the closer one gets to disaster, especially if one is implicated in that demise and disaster, the greater the denial.
Though enjoyable enough if you enter with light expectations, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, unfortunately, a forgettable experience.