Rise of the Planet of the Apes is better than anticipated based on the trailers. Like so many of the films of 2011, however, it is flawed in such a way that the successful parts end up leaving the viewer frustrated. In an otherwise well executed entertainment piece, flaws can stand out in high relief, and the viewer (or critic) fixates on them more for what could have been. Since the biggest flaw has to do with the film’s ending, it is impossible to talk about without plot spoilers, so please stop reading if you haven’t seen the film and don’t want the ending revealed.
For the first two-thirds of the film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes does a nice job of side-stepping the central problem confronting most prequels, origin stories, or reboots: you essentially know what the outcome will be. Because this film alters the origin story in the original franchise (which was more of a time-travel conundrum than a true cautionary tale) there are some elements of mystery and suspense about just how the apes will rise.
But rise they must, and rise they will, and when when the film remembers that fact (about twenty-five minutes from the end), Will Rodman (James Franco) does an abrupt 180 from gung-ho risk taker to cautionary Cassandra figure. It is as though the film suddenly realizes that the end is in sight and that unless at least one human character has some kind of pale imitation of a redemption arc, too many in the audience will cheer for the apes in the final battle and opine that the human race (and not just individual humans) got exactly what they deserved.
In fact, the film’s final scenes are cacophonies of tonal confusion. Here is Caesar looking majestic atop a Redwood tree while triumphal music scores. Here is the human carrier of a virus that will, apparently, wipe out most of the human race while more triumphal music scores the credits. Sure, there are lines over a map that could literally depict airline routes but slyly reference nuclear missile routes in a Missile Command/War Games graphic style (thus paying homage to the original series’ implications about how the earth was lost). It’s not that I mind so much a film that elicits conflicting or ambiguous emotions–if it does so intentionally. The ending here is just confused and confusing, though. How are we supposed to feel?
One could, I guess, spin the tale allegorically or symbolically, throw in some liberation theology, wax about how the apes show more humanity (they work in teams, sacrifice for the greater good) than do the humans (who are selfish and cruel), and insist that the triumph is one of right over might (or of freedom over tyranny). That only really works though if we conveniently forget what happens in the other Planet of the Apes films–how the apes are just as cruel in their savage mastery as are the humans.
No, like Source Code, the way the film works best is if you don’t think about it too much and don’t care what it means. In terms of pure story telling, Rise hums along efficiently, and the action set pieces are sufficiently grand in scale yet comprehensible in choreography to provide the viewer with a clear understanding of what is happening. In fact, the way strategic learning is depicted through action (rather than through talking about actions) made me wonder, for just a second, what directer Rupert Wyatt might do with a script for Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game (a novel I will persist in thinking unfilmable until someone proves me wrong).
If I lament too much over the ending it is, in part, because it came across as a lack of nerve. The first half of the film gives Rodman a Victor-Frankenstein0-like altruistic motivation: he wants to save the world, starting with his father, from Alzheimer’s. Is self-destruction through medical experimentation any different from self-destruction through military and technological immolation? I would argue that it is. If the film had followed through with Victor’s…err, Rodman’s original motivation, he could be a tragic figure, aware of what he had done and having to bear the realization that good intentions or motivations don’t always shield us from making poor decisions. I’m convinced that it is the film’s belief that the audience cannot abide a flawed or tragic protagonist that leads to abrupt reformation of the mad scientist. Because he was personally kind to Ceasar and because he wanted to slow the clinical trials when only money was at stake, Rodman is largely absolved in the film’s (very) short term memory of the ultimate (of any?) responsibility for a world-wide epidemic that will lead to the near destruction of the human race.
Should he be? How different is Rodman from Steven Jacobs, the business-first man who initially preaches caution when Rodman pushes for human experimentation and then pushes for expedited testing when Rodman, his own father now beyond help, wants to return to slow and steady research? Both characters put self-interest ahead of public safety; neither preaches caution out of principle. It is only when their own interests, such as they are, cannot be met that they advise others to follow the rules. Each is willing to flaunt safety or law, but only when doing so will directly benefit them.
One of the reasons Planet of the Apes works as a franchise is that its symbolism is largely flexible. One can read the central premise as making opaque statements about racism, colonialism, scientific hubris, heck, even animal rights. The best science fiction is about creating a certain amount of distance from the “real” world so that one has (even slightly) more room with which to address taboo or highly charged topics. Given so many angles with which to make a statement about something, it is odd that Rise of the Planet of the Apes tries so hard to be about nothing.
It largely succeeds, too. As an entertainment piece, it succeeds marvelously in creating a conflict and working a narrative through to a logical conclusion while showing us a world we haven’t seen before. As a work of art, even pop art, it loses its nerve a bit, never really thinking about what it wants to accomplish (beyond setting up more Planet of the Apes movies) or whether its themes, ideas, and point of view are in any way consistent with other installments of the same series.