You are a supremely frustrating film. I mean that in every sense of the word, by the way. Your effects, your writing, your story, your acting… nearly every single aspect of your production leaves me feeling as though I were tired to a chair, thirsty, with a cup of water just out of reach, only to be handed an empty glass with the expectation that this would quench my thirst just as well. I walked into you with the lowest of expectations, and you offered me enough of a glimpse of something great to let those expectations rise, and then failed in every way to deliver on that promise.
Narratively, I feel as though you had no idea what kind of movie you wanted to be, or even what kind of story you sought to tell. This is a fatal flaw from the get go, mainly because of the supreme weight you have to carry just from franchise expectations alone. The original Planet of the Apes set up a world in which apes had evolved to be the dominant species on the planet, and stranded a vaguely modern man on this world. The immense paradigm shift, the unspoken history, and the very immensity of the idea all colluded to make this one of the more shocking and terrifying visions of the future put to film.
The route you choose to follow in order to bring us to the genesis of this world is, to say the least, a vicious disappointment. As much as I loved Splice, I am pretty much through with the whole “man’s hubris of science will be his downfall” angle in sci-fi movies, especially as it pertains to making monsters. And make no mistake, that is what you have created in Caesar, the original alpha-ape. The story arc you make for this supposedly essential character reduces him to the role of an experimental fluke that runs amok, rather than the chosen messiah of our hairy brethren. Sure, he is smart, seems to have a personality, and his eyes reflect deep pools of intellectual wonder, but what is he wondering about? His place in the world? The reason for his existence? There was a time and a place to linger on these questions and to show us the depth of his rejection from society, but you glided over these moments of real human interaction in order to get Caesar to a more black-and-white, morally uncomplicated environment so his transformation and radicalization could be made without any kind of hesitation or question.
Which brings me to another of my qualms with your execution. For some reason, you waste an extraordinary amount of time on a plot involving James Franco as a researcher for a Big Evil Pharmaceutical Company. These scenes, which only serve as a means of explaining and distributing the mind-enchancing compound that acts as your Mystical Plot Device, are too long by half, and only rarely pay off with the kind of plot-relevant information you would expect. Time spent on this track could have been better used fleshing out and adding complexity to a fairly one-note human cast.
And this is your main problem. While you expend so much time and energy to make your CGI-created apes lifelike and relatable and deep, you barely do any kind of service to your human characters. Perhaps this was done on purpose, to aid in pushing the audience’s sympathy towards the apes, but in the end it just felt lazy and honestly sort of insulting. What kind of film goes to such great lengths to find the humanity in an ape, but can barely care enough to push humans above the levels of cartoons? The heart, the soul of the conflict between the apes and Man is suffocated beneath the constant reminder that these are not real people. They are either cartoonishly evil or simply uninteresting, and that doesn’t make me want the apes to succeed, it makes me want to choke a screenwriter.
This is an even deeper shame, because while your digital effects are not entirely seamless – another frustration, as they come so close – they are adequite to the point of allowing for a proper suspension of disbelief. This could have been used to yor advantage, leveraged to great effect, but is instead wasted. When the real people in a movie are so blunderingly dumb, the special effects that surround them who act with abject seriousness come off as pretentious and preposturous. That I was aware of their lack of weight and reality was also a detriment – even muppets can generate empathy, because they are physical beings, but pixels are harder to connect with in a real-world setting. However, this is an issue that could have easily been overlooked had the story and acting been up to the task. I never felt the people of the story, even those meant to have a kinship with Caeser, actually connecting with him. They were on two different planes of reality, spliced together and left to pantomime at eachother.
And when the human stupidty began to torpedo not just your emotional core, but your narrative logic, you lost me completely. Every success that the apes acheived was due to human idiocy moreso than their own ingenuity. I’m not even talking about it in an ironic “our lack of humility will destroy us all” way. These were honest to God stupid choices that were written out of a sense of plot convenience rather than any fidelity to reality. You should have moved me to the point that I was leaving the theater shaking at the idea of how my society could collapse so readily, but instead you left me frustrated that I was forced to accept those on-screen blunderers as my cinematic counterparts. You don’t need to dumb-down humanity, or paint it in broad strokes; we already do that for ourselves! But rather than use this, you went broader, dumber. If you’d had any faith in nuance or subtlty, you could have been great. Instead, you’re a 1950s B-movie creature feature with pretensions to higher intelligence.
Perhaps my greatest issue with you, though, is your complete and utter lack of a deeper, more intellectually compelling reason for the ape rebellion that you spend all of 20 minutes building towards when you realize toward the end that you had a point to make outside of the evils of science. When cartoonish caricatures of over-glorified dog catchers spend an hour beating up on Caesar, we of course expect him to become bitter and resentful, but what kind of beginning is that for a world-spanning society, especially after he spends something like eight years living a happy, well adjusted life? Aside from his desire to find a place he belongs with others of his kind, he evinces no ideology, no theory that might lead him to think he had to unite a clan. Why couldn’t he simply escape on his own? Why did he need a whole tribe of followers? Where did he think he was leading them?
Spoiler alert in this next paragraph, because I really can’t make this point without going into a secretive plot detail, though a minor one.
It is telling, to me at least, that Caeser’s first word is “no,” because this is usually the first word that infants employ with any force. It is a petulant, confrontational declaration of dismissal and refusal, with no real thought or idea to take the void left by the rejected idea. Had you tried to give any kind of motivation other than simply defiance and survival to Caeser, this line could have been the heartstopping moment of triumph you meant it to be, rather than a thesis on the entire unintentionally nihilistic core of your narrative.
So what are we left with after examining all of these deficiencies? A creature feature with impressive-but-still-only-just-convincing apes treated poorly by cartoonish villains, who are given a dose of smart juice and create a baseless, meaningless revolution. In short, an undercooked and unimpressive movie whose potential for statements on slavery, racism, apartheid, and humanity in general is completely lost.
You were supposed to be our first glimpse at the wildfire that would engulf the world and turn a planet ruled by man into a planet of the apes. Instead, you position yourself as the clicking sound of two rocks being banged together before a spark finally emerges to start the first pale finger of flame. Even this could have been compelling had you cared enough to paint in anything less than broad, easy strokes. As it stands, you serve as a lackluster prequel to a much better, but still entirely hypothetical movie that would actually be worth seeing.
What a waste of potential.
Brian J. Roan