Planet of the Apes. Have you seen it? I was in college when I happened to catch the Charlton Heston original late one night on cable, and after the first twenty minutes, I remember thinking it was really, really… gay. A bunch of male astronauts crash land on an unknown planet, strip naked and bathe with one another, and lie around musing how much they miss their dear friend Landon. It was pretty weird, and no one really explained quite why a movie that supposedly made a pretty strong case for the Civil Rights movement, had so many naked men in it. Flash forward 30 years and several B-movie sequels, and you’ve got Tim Burton, master of the modern day gothic, giving us a pretty uneven remake. Was it necessary? I don’t know, but it certainly had way fewer naked dudes. Skip another 10 years, and Hollywood does what it does best – squeezing blood from a stone, reigniting the franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, set for release this summer.
Starring James Franco and Brian Cox, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set in modern times, and is supposed to be the beginning point for what would eventually become the planet of the apes that Heston knew so well. Forget that we already know the punch line, and that the planet that is ruled by super-intelligent monkeys is actually Earth, Rise of the Apes shows us how we got there. Franco, a scientist working on a cure for brain damage victims, tests his new serum on primates (like all good movie scientists – see Outbreak). A friend to the funky monkeys he operates on, Franco’s ‘Will’ begins to notice that while the brain does indeed begin to repair itself, it doesn’t stop there, and grants higher intelligence to the apes that receive the drug. Soon the captive gorillas learn how to open their cages, and all hell breaks loose from there, unleashing a horde of super-smart damn dirty apes upon the city.
Now let’s set aside the obvious first question about James Franco as a convincing genius scientist, and just focus on the movie in general for now. A film about scientists who go too far and have to deal with playing God? Fine. A movie where humans are attacked by intelligent animals? Great! I loved Jurassic Park. But a Planet of the Apes prequel where all the apes terrorizing the city are actual apes? Wait just one minute there. A movie where monkeys get loose and trash the place is fine, but already knowing ahead of time that they’re going to win, and eventually turn into upright walking and talking Roddy McDowalls, just doesn’t work for me. The apes in the movie don’t appear to have formed language skills, and they’re still knuckle dragging gorillas with ferocious wild tendencies. When I watch a ‘Planet of the Apes’ movie, I want my monkeys talking, using tools, and basically living the life I do now; in a “civilized society.” What I’m getting is a movie about a bunch of apes escaping from the zoo.
Now, onto the question of James Franco as a brilliant biologist. Sure, I don’t know the guy, and given stories I’ve heard, I bet he’s very well-read and able to formulate abstract thoughts. However, I’ve never heard of the guy constructing complex enzymes needed to rebuild cell structure, and frankly, the majority of the roles I’ve seen him either show him as a half-baked actor (Flyboys), or a fully baked stoner (Pineapple Express, “Freaks and Geeks”). Yes, he showed much range in last year’s 127 Hours, but he was playing a granola nature boy, who let’s face it, was probably high the night before heading out into the canyons of Moab, Utah. His look, mannerisms, even his voice, just scream Liberal Arts, and for us to believe that he holds advanced medical degrees, let alone even made it through his pre-med classes, have us calling shenanigans right off the bat. Not something you want your viewer to have to constantly fight the urge to question throughout an entire film.
So, will it suck?
Yes, of course. Franco is ill-equipped for the role, and hasn’t yet established himself as an actor with the range to tackle anything more than a high-ranking lab assistant. And the movie doesn’t provide any of the social commentary that could be made of our still very racially segregated state. It’s just another action movie that omits the big questions, much like Will Smith’s I Am Legend. Remember what we thought about Tim Burton’s movie? I’ll remind you – “not much”. The original Planet of the Apes was a science fiction fable about what could happen in the nuclear age when we blast our cities back to the pre-dawn era, and where humans are the sub-species to a master race of apes. Was there action? Sure, a little horseback riding and hand to hand combat, but that only served to drive the underlying message. Burton’s apes were wildly jumping monkeys running through the jungle, and the movie just didn’t work until the final scene, which only left us wanting to see that, not the previous 90 minutes we just sat through. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it seems like we’re getting a movie that is meant to set up a franchise, but not necessarily a movie that we want or need to see. It’s nice to know just how the apes came to get their super-intellect, but forgive me for saying that I’d much rather watch a film that questions what would happen if the primates were the ones running society, rather than a movie where a bunch of apes run amok.