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Movie Review: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

Grade: B+/A- (SEE IT)

THE FACT THAT star James Franco (“Howl,” “Milk”) is currently studying British Romantic literature at Yale University in pursuit of his PhD – what’s next? Anne Hathaway as college chancellor? – may help to explain his initial attraction to the script for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” (2011), a  prequel to the “Planet of the Apes” franchise which will have you saying to yourself: Go monkey, go!   After all, it’s in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818), that Romantic caveat of a classic which more or less spawned the entire science-fiction genre, that Victor Frankenstein describes his laboratory as that “workshop of filthy creation.”  What gives “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” its chill (and genuine thrill) is that the pharma-medical lab at the film’s center is anything but filthy.  Instead, the scientific headquarters known as Gen-Sys look like a state-of-the-art facility: sleek and silvery countertops, Plexiglas cages in which primates pace and occasionally scream out, Franco (as Will Rodman) in an immaculately white lab coat.

The glossy exterior of Gen-Sys belies what goes on behind (sliding and keypad-operated) doors: primates are routinely tested and tortured in pursuit of a cure for Alzheimer’s.  The drug restores memory in humans and turns primates into Super-Simians.   Rodman’s own dad, Charles (played by a befuddled looking John Lithgow) is himself an Alzheimer’s sufferer and another guinea pig for his son’s trials.  Therein lies the film’s recipe for disaster: just as Will is boasting to Gen-Sys’s investors that he and boss (smooth operator David Oyelowo) have found the cure, an ape known as Bright Eyes busts out of its cage and through the window to a board meeting only to be shot dead by security.  Bright Eyes leaves behind a baby chimp whom Will smuggles out of the lab and names Caesar.

It’s a portentous name, Caesar, and until he finally realizes the dictatorial power of his moniker, we’re left waiting for Caesar to rise and rule a maligned race of apes just dying for a leader.   With the help of Will’s panacea for Alzheimer’s, which he steals from the kitchen fridge, Caesar crosses the Rubicon into San Francisco and starts a revolution.  Who knew the City by the Bay had an incompetently run monkey house sitting on its borders like a ticking time bomb, and that silverback apes, looking for spears to throw at cop cars, could pull parking meters out of sidewalks like they’re picking daisies? In a film really about the horrors of captivity, this George is more furious than curious.

Director Rupert Wyatt (“The Escapist”) maintains a breezy pace as Caesar’s insurrection gathers speed and force.  One notable scene is set on Will’s street where drivers and pedestrians alike stop, mouths agape, to see something amazing:  scores of monkeys swinging through the trees above in a gathering storm.  The standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge is truly something to behold; one would be hard-pressed to think of another confrontation on film between ape and mounted policeman (ape: 1; S.F.P.D.: 0).  Though “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” delivers the exploding helicopters and car chases we expect from a summer blockbuster, Wyatt also maintains a thoughtful plea for animal liberation.  Sympathy was central for the Romantics, especially Mary Shelley whose Creature in Frankenstein longs for someone to sympathize with his plight, and the traces of that creed are still visible in Caesar’s all-too-human cries for freedom and non-violence.

The most affecting revelation in Frankenstein is when Shelley’s monster, with his “dull yellow eye,” confesses to his crimes, saying: “I’m malicious because I’m miserable.”  His motivation all along was the simple, childlike desire to be loved and needed, but looking the way he does, humans only reacted with fear and horror.  This is more or less the point of Wyatt’s eco-positive parable, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”: all monsters are man-made just as every futile attempt to contain the animal other via zoos and laboratories ultimately backfires.  So long as we continue to oppress all other species, the threat of their violent takeover will remain both a fear and a fantasy.

As a modern-day Frankenstein’s monster, Caesar wants to lead a bloodless revolution – he even stops his monkey underlings from killing humans indiscriminately – but it’s just not in the cards, especially in a Hollywood movie.  It’s telling that his only line in the movie is “No,” which he utters to the surprise of his inept jailers in the ape house.  If you’re listening, Patrick Doyle’s pulsing score will stay with you until you reach the parking lot, but it’s the final image of Caesar finally in his element, free (for now) in the treetops overlooking San Fran, that will enliven you long after.

For my review of Franco as poet Allen Ginsberg in “Howl,” see:

“A Movie Based On a Poem”

(Review of “Howl”) in the _G&LR_