I happily watched the Planet of the Apes TV series when I was a kid, and later saw all of the (notoriously varied in quality) movies; Conquest of the Planet of the Apes is must-see watching, of course, for any UC Irvine student. Although I've yet to watch the Tim Burton remake, I was feeling nostalgic enough yesterday that I trotted over to the local movie theatre to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, starring James Franco and an awful lot of CGI. Several minutes in, I began thinking, with some puzzlement, "Wait. Isn't this Frankenstein?" Returning home, I punched in the appropriate search terms, and indeed, it's Frankenstein.
However, where Frankenstein spent his nights in noisome "charnel houses," identifying the secrets of death and how to overcome them with electricity (the wonder fad of the day), our scientist, Rodman, yearns instead to conquer Alzheimer's disease, which he plans to rewrite via a canny virus. Rodman's scientific quest intensifies Frankenstein's focus on the nature of identity: for many people, the characters in this film included, the great terror of Alzheimer's lies in its power to erase human subjectivity, progressively stripping individuals of everything that constituted them as a self. Frankenstein's Creature is in trouble because he is absolutely unprecedented, and therefore cannot be recognized as an individuated subject in the first place. When I teach the novel, I point out that during the novel's main plot, Frankenstein finds there's just no intelligible story about the Creature that can be told to other humans (and indeed, when Frankenstein finally does tell someone about the Creature, he is only believed as a talented Gothic novelist might be believed...). In fact, one of Frankenstein's moral failures lies in his inability to register how the Creature might, or might not, be able to function in the world as we now know it. This is not, however, the problem that Caesar the genetically-altered chimpanzee faces, although his first trip to Gen*Sys replicates the Creature's attempts to find himself through reading different literary texts (including Paradise Lost). Unlike Frankenstein and his Creature, Rodman doesn't abandon Caesar until the System forces him to, and there's never any sign that Caesar lacks love or nurturing. But he isn't a human, and as the director notes in the first link above, he hasn't been adequately socialized as a chimpanzee, either. Caesar soon demonstrates that he isn't entirely Other to his fellow apes, though, and the film dramatizes his appropriation of human technology to transform the apes into a cohesive social unit. The Creature masters language, but his speech never "normalizes" him, never turns him into a recognizable man; thanks to Rodman's intervention, Caesar masters the language of both apes and men, and constructs something novel out of the two.
Caesar's ability to innovate, mobilize, and ultimately triumph is an important deviation from the Frankenstein narrative. Frankenstein's Creature may be superhuman, but--as the fallen image of fallen man--he can only create death and absence. He erases, instead of reproduces. (There's a reason he needs Frankenstein to create his would-be bride, instead of replicating the technique himself.) Even though the film does nod its head to visions of modern-day Edens invaded by human snakes--the rainforest, the redwoods--neither the Biblical nor Miltonic falls are actually in play here. If anything, Rodman successfully raises Caesar to be more moral than anyone else in the film (himself included). Pace Christianity Today, the apes don't "start taking innocent lives": Caesar accidentally electrocutes the sadistic keeper and saves the vaguely stoned but harmless one from the other apes; there are no random attacks on any human beings, who are usually allowed to just run away; and even most of the cops attacking the apes are left alive at Caesar's direction. (CultureLab notes that this isn't exactly normal chimpanzee behavior.) The scant handful of deaths are all distributed according to poetic justice. Just war? Proportional retribution? Mercy? In any event, Caesar turns out to have an ethical regard for life that nobody else in the film does.
But the film also deviates from the novel in its lack of ambiguity about responsibility and blame. Frankenstein spends much of the novel, including the end, trying to weasel out of admitting fault--and, notoriously, concludes that he's not responsible for much of anything; the Creature blames himself for his actions, but also notes that the very structure of the narrative stacks the deck against him. ("'Am I to be thought the only criminal,'" he asks Walton, "'when all human kind sinned against me?'") Here, the deck gets stacked in a different direction. This film operates with Good Guys and Bad Guys, and pays little attention to the potential problems with Good Guy behavior. Moreover, given that Franco channels Keir Dullea's emotionless performance in 2001, it's hard to identify with him qua human being, just as it's difficult to feel much for any of the other human characters (except, perhaps, Rodman's dying father). As the reviewer for Variety points out, Rise seems not to blame Rodman at all for engineering the total destruction of the human race, thanks to the new virus. Raging capitalism is to blame! Far from being the "new Prometheus," bringing fire to inaugurate civilization as we know it, Rodman turns out to be one of the harbingers of the apocalypse. Perhaps we should regard the film as posing a what-if about Frankenstein: what if Frankenstein had been successful? Had done everything right? Rodman does create a new Adam, at the expense of the old...