February 21, 2020

This week’s Popcorn: ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

Gorilla warfare

2 & ½ popcorns

By Michael S. Goldberger

Special to the Observer

Listen to the folks at the monkey cage: “They’re so much like us…just a chromosome or two different, you know.” Fact is, it might as well be a million chromosomes. But while simple old bacteria stands a better chance of usurping the Earth, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” taps into the pseudo biology that perpetuates our fascination with this franchise.

But before climbing back into the trees, know that this prequel is what director Rupert Wyatt has termed a reboot of the series, based on the original book, “Monkey Planet,” by spy-turned-author, Pierre Boulle. In that respect, while constructed and marketed to please cult followers and new fans alike, license is taken with the continuity.

Yet perhaps more importantly, and unfortunately, a cautionary, doomsday statement about genetic engineering has now replaced the philosophical emphasis. Set in the present, it starts with researcher Will Rodman’s attempt to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Played enthusiastically by James Franco, his crusade is not entirely altruistic.

At home, his dad, portrayed by John Lithgow, continues to deteriorate from the scourge. But there may be hope. Trials on chimpanzees of a new gene therapy, ALZ 112, at Gen-Sys, where Will is your typical scientific genius/maverick, are hopeful. And interestingly enough, the test chimps have been getting real smart. Hmm, seems a little foreboding.

It is. Following events that lead to trouble back at the billion dollar research company, Will adopts a baby chimpanzee who his now improving father names Caesar. Taking up residence in a nicely decorated attic, Caesar sees his mental faculties increase daily. But his status is uncertain, his only solace being Will’s assurance that he is not a pet.

All of which begs the question, “Well then, what is he?” While never answered with satisfactory conclusion, it certainly doesn’t deter the quandary from serving as the focus of the movie. Caesar searches for identity. And, though maintaining a relationship with his surrogate dad, his increasing smarts prompt a zeal to realize some sort of destiny.

Naturally, lots of action attends the odyssey, exquisitely created by a digital process that also makes possible a virtual army of apes soon flooding the screen. Without giving away too much of the predictable tale, suffice it to note that much “Sturm und Drang” ensues as push comes to shove between humans and apes. Too bad the story isn’t as exciting.

It’s a function of artistic fashion. While the 1968 film was praised by many as superb for its allegorical take on race relations, genetics now trumps that as the flavor of choice. But whether or not this newest bit of dramatic muckraking can check a bio industry laying claim to all sorts of curious proprietorships, the techno-paranoia tale is a tad old.

Also a bit passé is the self-deprecating notion that, just because human behavior is exasperating, indefinable and ultimately unpredictable, other members of the animal kingdom would be far better stewards of the Earth. Surely a much simpler, non-human primate could govern more fairly. I bet they’d even enact a single payer health plan.

But the idyll, beyond its dramatically accommodating use as a literary metaphor, so brilliantly exampled in George Orwell’s iconic “Animal Farm” and poignantly executed in Rod Serling’s screenplay for the first “Planet of the Apes,” is nonsense. And yet again, buying in is much more fun than pondering the real exigencies of our supposed primacy.

Director Wyatt also takes the occasion to impress some thoughts about animal cruelty. The evil treatment of Caesar and his fellow chimpanzees at the hand of a horribly sadistic warden while incarcerated in a bedlam-like holding area is, sadly, not as over the top as we would like to imagine, and is used to justify the retribution that follows.

Making it all the more graphic are the special effects that can now render credible the most far-fetched concepts. Seeing is believing; and a landscape fashioned by computer-generated imagery and sensational art direction creates a package that effectively promotes the fanciful premise. But what really sells the idea is Andy Serkis’s performance — if, indeed, that’s what it is.

There is already buzz about whether or not Mr. Serkis’s motions and expressions, translated by computer to embody Caesar, and known as performance-capture, should be eligible for an Academy Award nomination. Acknowledging that new Oscar categories are rarer to come by than constitutional amendments, that nonetheless gets my vote.

Controversy aside, the missing link in this otherwise exquisitely produced film has been literature’s root DNA ever since we first thought to tell a tale: the plot. Of course, thanks to a box office phenomenon known as monkey-see, monkey do, even without a first-rate story, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proves there’s no business like monkey business.


“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” rated PG-13, is a Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation release directed by Rupert Wyatt and stars James Franco, Andy Serkis and John Lithgow. Running time: 105 minutes


All this weeks News Articles