This one will annoy the purists. As an origin tale, Rise flat-out rewrites the Planet mythos. In one of the most famous finales in film history, Charleton Heston’s Colonel Taylor and Nova (Linda Harrison) ride horseback on the beach, ready to begin a new world as Adam and Eve. When Taylor spots the Statue of Liberty’s head emerged from the berm, director Franklin J. Schaffner frames the shot with bitter irony: as the foreground to Heston and Harrison, the Statue’s crown enters the frame like a sunrise that’s gone gray and cold. Taylor yells, “You maniacs! You blew it up!” thus relating that The Bomb had brought about the end of mankind and cleared room for the apes to rise. With his words, “God damn you all to hell!” we see Taylor expelled from his Eden. The film’s extended allusion to Wells’ The Time Machine – in which the Morlocks oppress the descendents of humans, the Eloi – shifts into one of the trademark closings of the New Hollywood era.
Though nukes seem too ’60s for today’s screenwriters. The Apes’ rise in 2011 comes from drug experimentation. (Psychiatric drugs used on children seems to have been the target that’s been missed.) James Franco plays Will Rodman, a mad scientist of the endearing variety – it appears the tradition of Colin Clive and Jeffrey Coombs has completely abandoned geekdom, while today’s indie rock celebrates it. Beyond scientific inquiry, Will has a personal stake in his drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease, which is taking his father (John Lithgow). Hence, the drug is tested on apes, and a simple plot is laid out: the mentally enhanced ape will lead to their ascent.
The film relies less on the element of surprise in the original Planet – Rise investigates the sensibility behind its science fiction conceit. It recalls a film that premiered the same year as its own predecessor, 2001: A Space Odyssey. As we all know, Kubrick’s film begins during prehistory, with the Dawn of Man sequence showing primates learning to use tools for hunting, war, and then – though that classic jump cut – flight into space. (Though, to be precise, the first attempt to reprogram an ape was, of course, in Merian C. Cooper’s King Kong, when Denham thinks he can tame the beast by teaching it fear.) Through the vague but intriguing “monolith,” 2001‘s Dawn sequence is the first of many evolutions of man as he becomes programmed into new systems. Hal 3000 is a later evolution, a “machine” that’s not as programmable as Dave thinks, before the latter reaches the furthest realm to become more human than before. The original Planet offered a lot in the way of evolution, but less on human programming. (You’d have to pry away Heston’s willpower from his cold dead hands.) Rise wears Planet‘s mask to use 2001‘s conceit. In this sense, Franco-stein begets a monster worthy of our consideration and viewing pleasure.
The ape that will be king is Caesar (a convincing-as-we’re-gonna-get CGI simian), born to one of a number of captured apes that are exterminated after the scientists realized that a drug test on animals went wrong. Will takes Caesar home, where he raises him like a young boy (the fact that “Rise” is released near James Marsh’s documentary Project Nim, about a real life, similar experiment, is an odd coincidence). Caesar mentally progresses with his enhanced DNA. When he outgrows the home by proving to be dangerous, he enters an ape colony. This setting highlights animal abuse – the apes are caged for much of the time, and are loosed into a communal spot that looks a lot like a battle rink before it becomes one. Yet in the colony, Caesar adjusts to a new system, where he sheds his humanization and learns to take power over his peers. Were he free in a forest and not forced into a dominate-or-die situation, things may be different – but this is beside the point. The drug has already become the catalyst, and the caged environment helps to shape Caesar into a revolutionary leader. When Will tries to take him back, Caesar has adapted beyond any chance of human conditioning.
This theme fuels the film’s second act, after the first stays cute, with the help of Franco wooing the model-turned-Slumdog Millionaire star, Freida Pinto (in other words, this film’s Megan Fox). The final act takes us where Caesar leads, and we learn why San Francisco was chosen as the setting: for the vantage point of Redwoods, and a human-ape standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge. The film loses its sensibility in favor of Michael Bay-dry action. Yet enough of the commentary lingers, as Rise reworks tradition for a suitable genre entry like the solid Terminator: Salvation (though the latter film adheres more to its own mythos). At the very least, Rise reminds us that chimpanzees aren’t those cute goofs in TV commercials and that a grown chimp, three times the size and able to hurl itself from branches, will reduce a human into a pile of flesh in seconds.