The film's CGI simians are a marvel; it's too bad their human counterparts are so lousy
“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.
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.
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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.
Caesar is by far the most expressive character in the film: by turns playful and touching in the first, domestic act; confused and forlorn at the outset of his captivity; and stoic and resolute as he takes fate into his own long-fingered hands. The film’s “prison” scenes, in particular, offer a cunning twist on the genre, as Caesar gradually establishes himself as the Ape Who Can Get Things Done on the Inside.
When Caesar and his legions ultimately liberate themselves, the ensuing action sequences are, for once, not a letdown. A scene of simians silhouetted against the nighttime sky, and another, of leaves falling on a sunny suburban street as the ape army marches through the foliage above, are among the more evocative of the summer season. We’re treated to apes bursting through windows, apes loping across rooftops and over stopped cars, apes brandishing fence-pickets as spears and hurling discus-like manhole covers. When it comes, the climactic confrontation with police on the Golden Gate Bridge is clever in conception and sharp in execution.
Alas, the apes’ human counterparts let them down from the very start. In what is billed as the film’s lead role, Franco is nearly as listless as he was while handing out Academy Awards earlier this year. Indeed, there are stretches when his Will seems less a character than a narrative device, offering a tiresome series of expository voiceovers. As we watch Caesar display feats of extraordinary intelligence, Will explains to a tape recorder—remember, he’s a scientist!—that Caesar is extraordinarily intelligent; as Will’s dad recovers from Alzheimer’s thanks to his son’s revolutionary treatment, Will informs the tape recorder that his dad is recovering etc., etc. These explanatory interludes are so flat and unnecessary that it occasionally seems the filmmakers suspect their audience, too, is in need of gene therapy to improve memory and cognition.
Nor do things improve as one works through the cast. John Lithgow is perfectly reliable as the Dad With Alzheimer’s, but David Oyelowo barely achieves caricature as the Greedy Pharmaceutical Exec, and Pinto makes almost no impression at all as the Underwritten Girlfriend. As the nasty zookeep, Felton, freshly retired from a decade of playing Draco Malfoy, does little more than establish himself as Hollywood’s go-to guy for adolescent sneering. And I’m at rather a loss regarding why Cox is in the film at all.
In the performers’ defense, the script (by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver), though agile enough when the apes are onscreen, stumbles nearly every time human dialogue or motivation are required, and treats the real-life ramifications of, say, owning a chimpanzee or conducting drug trials (you don’t actually move to human subjects after a successful test on a single animal) with studious contempt. Wyatt’s direction, too, is sloppy and unfocused—a particular disappointment given that his previous feature was the humane, meticulously observed prison-break film The Escapist.
Following the climax on the Golden Gate, the movie concludes on a note that is ambiguous in virtually every respect—moral, narrative—save for advertising its desperate desire that a sequel be greenlighted. Whether or not these magnificent apes can wrest the Earth from human control will have to wait for prospective future installments. Better, perhaps, if they’d take over Hollywood instead.