Rise (and Fall) of the Planet of the Apes

The film's CGI simians are a marvel; it's too bad their human counterparts are so lousy

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20th Century Fox

“Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape.”

Those words, memorably uttered by Charlton Heston in the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, began a contentious interspecies dialogue that was to persist through four cinematic sequels, two short-lived TV series, one attempted (and best forgotten) 2001 reboot, and now another, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Heston’s iconic line recurs in this movie, though with the context largely reversed: This time out, the human speaker is a brutal jailer (Tom Felton) and the insulted ape, his sympathetic captive.

James Franco is nearly as listless as he was while handing out Academy Awards earlier this year

Though Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not fit directly into the mythos of the earlier films, it takes its cues from the third and fourth installments (Escape from and Conquest of, respectively). In them, advanced chimps from the far future, played by Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter, time-warped to the present, where they gave birth to a baby, Caesar, who would eventually grow up to lead the ape rebellion—a variation of the self-contained time loop later adopted by the Terminator franchise.

In the new film, directed by Rupert Wyatt, Caesar is again the protagonist and head-ape-to-be, though his origins are somewhat more humble. A pharmaceutical chemist named Will Rodman (James Franco) has been testing a new anti-Alzheimer’s gene therapy on chimpanzees, who undergo astonishing cognitive enhancements as a result. Alas, just as he is selling his corporate board of directors on the need to conduct human trials, his star subject, a chimp named “Bright Eyes,” rampages violently into the boardroom and is shot dead by security. The board, needless to say, is not amused, and Will’s project is canceled. He soon discovers, though, that Bright Eyes has left behind a newborn son, whom he takes home and names Caesar.

The young chimp has inherited his mother’s augmented intelligence, and the first third or so of the movie frequently has a bit of a hokey, Bedtime for Bonzo vibe, as Will takes Caesar for a romp among Bay Area redwoods and Caesar helps Will get a date with a comely veterinarian (Freida Pinto). But ominous musical spikes suggest rougher times lie ahead and, sure enough, Caesar gradually becomes aware that he is a chimp apart, neither pet nor person. Following an altercation with a preternaturally obnoxious neighbor, he is collected by Animal Control and remitted to the custody of a corrupt keeper (Brian Cox) and his snidely sadistic sidekick (Felton). It is only a matter of time before Caesar releases himself on his own recognizance, along with a platoon of other imprisoned—and appropriately P.O.’d—primates.

To a striking degree, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is half good and half bad, and the primary dividing line is by genus. To begin with the good: Caesar and his fellow chimps, orangutans, and gorillas are marvels of motion-capture—that is, CGI based on the movements of human actors. (Joe Letteri, who’s won multiple special-effects Oscars, most recently for Avatar, handled the translation from flesh to pixel.) Caesar himself is “played” by Andy Serkis, who owns perhaps the most peculiar niche in the film industry, having performed the same role for The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum and the 2005 version of King Kong.

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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