When I made the joke months ago that people should see “Project Nim” because it’s basically like a prequel to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I didn’t realize just how similar the two movies would really be. It’s more like “ROTPOTA” is a dramatic remake of the recent documentary, which also relates it very closely to “Project X.” Back when “Nim” arrived in theaters I revisited “X” to see how it compared in retrospect. And while I’m only partially familiar with the “Planet of the Apes” sequels most closely used as reference material for this rebooted installment (the plot is somewhere within the spirits of “Escape” and “Conquest”), I’ve concluded that it is more akin to the 1987 Matthew Broderick vehicle than anything sourced from Pierre Boulle’s original novel.
James Franco basically fills both Broderick’s and Helen Hunt’s “X” roles here, as female lead Freida Pinto has so little do. Or, maybe he’s just the Hunt part. He starts out with the baby chimpanzee, here named Caesar (it’s all in the name, so not surprising that the “ROTPOTA” chimp is a leader while “X”‘s Virgil was more the shy, dreaming type), to whom he teaches American Sign Language. And apparently Caesar can also comprehend vocal English, but at least the film respects its audience enough to subtitle some of the ASL in the film rather than give the animals translating mechanical arms, a la “Congo.” Due to circumstances unlike those in “X,” Caesar ends up with others of his own kind, in a cruel shelter, and there he and his new friends rebel.
The main difference is that unlike Virgil, Caesar isn’t sent to an Air Force facility, or anywhere involving testing for that matter. The animal experimentation element is present, but that is actually where Caesar originated, having been born to a mother who’d been given a drug to improve her brain functions. Franco developed this drug as a potential cure for Alzheimer’s, in part to help his own father (John Lithgow). Where “Project X” has a double dealing in bad science by involving evil animal testing in support of the evil of nuclear weapons, “ROTPOTA” is more about the worst side effects of trying to do good with medical experimentation. And, not to spoil anything, but the film features more negative outcomes for us than just chimps gaining great intelligence and taking over.
I almost want to believe that screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa (“The Relic”) and director Rupert Wyatt were conscious of the “X” connection in giving some serious punishment to more than one pilot in the movie. But it’s likely more the case they were influenced by “X-Men: The Last Stand” in having a final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course, neither of those seem likely, nor does the surely unintentional reference to another new documentary, “Buck,” which also uses man’s treatment of animals to signify human relationships with one another. I also am fairly certain (or hopeful) the filmmakers meant for no metaphorical representation of Arabs, thank you very much.
Like many other critics, I particularly appreciated the moments in “ROTPOTA” without dialogue, those scenes where it’s just Caesar interacting with other chimps, an orangutan and a gorilla. It’s reminiscent of the first act of “2001.” A favorite moment of mine also features no speech, as the escaped simians travel above a suburban street through treetops, stealthy except for all the leaves they’re causing to fall. Wyatt displays a remarkably rare knack for visual storytelling here, and though there is some necessary verbal exposition at times, I imagine this film is just as entertaining with the sound turned off.
So it’s a shame to think a sequel to the film will have the apes speaking English, like the others in the “Planet” series. Caesar does start to say a few words in this movie, despite a lack of logic in increased intelligence leading to sudden vocal cords.
It is hardly the smartest movie of the year, and saying it’s the smartest blockbuster of the summer would hardly be saying much anyways. I am far more fond of its handling of human offenses and accountability to that of last week’s “Cowboys & Aliens,” with its obnoxious white pride. Science fiction may deal with our treatment of animals and ourselves in two ways, with aliens arriving and doing to us as we’ve done to others or with the others rising up and taking over. And good sci-fi, I think, tends to be that which has the conviction to follow through with the retributive consequences.
“ROTPOTA” is kind of the missing link between “Cowboys & Aliens” and “Attack the Block” (its fellow new alien invasion flick), but it also goes further in its warning message (actually, “Attack,” the aliens of which are ape-like, is good for having little to nothing in the message department). This shouldn’t be much of a spoiler given the wide familiarity with where the “Planet of the Apes” story goes.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is now playing everywhere.
Recommended If You Like: “Project X”; “Spider-Man”; “12 Monkeys”