“If Planet of the Apes is indeed reincarnated,” critic Michael Atkinson once predicted in Film Comment, “the brute nerve and chilling disorientation of the thing will surely be lost amid the acres of trod-upon eggshells.” That was written before Tim Burton’s sickly 2001 remake and, predictably, it also applies to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the second costly reboot of the junk cinema franchise.
Relaunching the series with—what else?—an origin story, Rise seeks to displace the roots established by Escape and Conquest, the third and fourth in the original run. Here, the apes mobilize and rise (though stop short of conquering) thanks to an Alzheimer’s drug being developed by scientist James Franco. Unwittingly, it makes chimp Caesar (a cartoon with a reliably nuanced motion-captured “performance” by Andy Serkis) smart enough to use sign language, develop complex human relationships and foment a revolution when he’s placed in the care of the sadistic thugs (chiefly Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy) of an animal shelter.
The strength of the original films—two of which are artistically worse than Rise, which is at least clean and competent—wasn’t (or wasn’t just) the kitsch, the ape makeup or Charlton Heston’s bellowing. It was their searing, reckless, ballsy comments on race relations. The original cycle offered a maddening, ever-evolving examination of bigotry, a funhouse mirror of America in the midst of the civil rights era. Conquest is still the only Hollywood product to end with a violent slave revolt.
Rise isn’t neutered like Burton’s Marky Mark and the Monkey Bunch, but any edges have been sanded down. PETA propaganda is there if you want it, but humans are by and large kindly and bland, with a few bad eggs; man’s great hubris, it appears, is that it wants to cure diseases. The only thing on the agenda is a slow build-up to monkey mayhem, which is good fun when it arrives, even though it concludes with a total pussing-out. Perhaps it’s unfair to demand subtext from a film uninterested in it, but it’s depressing to see filmmakers completely avoid finding strong themes in a premise this richly allegorical. In the original Apes films, sentient beings were bound to dominate, oppress and persecute eachother. In Rise, the only problem is that some humans are dicks.