REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes Can't Sink Much Lower
I could describe Rise of the Planet of the Apes as Escape from Alcatraz, except with apes, but that would make it sound like a movie you might actually want to see. I could also describe it as an "origin story" that supposedly explains, albeit in a rather indirect fashion, how apes became evolved enough to wear black leather-trimmed tunics and walk around speaking in cultured voices that sound suspiciously like those of Kim Hunter and Roddy McDowall. But even if that's the movie director Rupert Wyatt thinks he's making -- and the one James Franco thinks he's starring in -- that's not the movie I saw.
The backstory told in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is infinitely less compelling -- and less inspired -- than the one told in Franklin J. Schaffner's 1968 Planet of the Apes, in which astronaut Charlton Heston crash-lands on a planet where apes are king and humans are second-class citizens. According to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the whole thing began with a dream: San Francisco scientist Will Rodman (Franco) hopes the cure for Alzheimer's lies in a serum he's been injecting into apes. His crusade is personal: His father, Charles (John Lithgow), is suffering from the disease. (Its chief effect, apparently, is to make him play the piano very, very badly.) When Will's most important guinea-ape is shot and killed after having a major temper tantrum, it's discovered that she was pregnant when captured; apparently, unbeknownst to everyone in the lab, she gave birth in her cage and hid her baby behind a ledge in there. Or something.
Will takes the baby chimp home, and Charles, in a brief moment of non-piano-playing lucidity, christens him Caesar. It soon becomes clear that Caesar possesses above-average intelligence; the serum injected into his mom had made her supersmart too, and because it also changed her genetic makeup, she was able to pass this gift along to her offspring. Will raises Caesar as if he were a son, helped along by his girlfriend, pretty zoo doctor Caroline (Freida Pinto). He even teaches the chimp sign language. But because Will is so busy being a scientist and chimp-dad, he doesn't have time to go see Project Nim, and so he doesn't realize that somehow or other, his experiment is doomed to fail. After Caesar bites the finger off a mean neighbor, he's incarcerated in a supposedly clean, pleasant and humane ape facility run by Brian Cox. Run, don't walk, little chimp!
Rise of the Planet of the Apes -- which was written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who adapted their ideas, as the writers of the earlier franchise did, from Pierre Boulle's novel La Planète des Singes) -- is too earnest and dour to be a silly bit of summer fun, but it's not exactly scientifically sound, either. I kept waiting for a brainy chimp to be catapulted into space. For one brief, hopeful moment, I wondered if John Lithgow, upon being injected with his son's miracle serum, might turn into a chimp.
That would have been something, but no go. By the time Caesar and his fellow imprisoned apes stage their jailbreak -- the beginning of a rampage that eventually takes them to the Golden Gate Bridge, ostensibly because a.) for there are cables for them to climb on and swing from but more likely because b.) it's there -- the movie's grayed-out look and heavy-duty computer-generated enhancements begin to lose their charms, which are puny to begin with.
Caesar is played, with the help of a motion-capture leotard and lots of computer flimflam, by Andy Serkis, and though Serkis has played an ape before -- he provided the eyes and soul of Peter Jackson's King Kong -- he's unconvincing here. It's hard to say if the chief problem is the technology or the performance; it's probably a combination of both. A computer-generated ape is so much less human-seeming than a real one. Caesar's eyes, in particular, look all wrong -- they're piercing rather than winsome, and they look hostile even when he's supposedly doing something sweet, like clambering into daddy Will's arms for a cuddle. We need to sympathize with Caesar for the movie to work, but from infancy, he just looks shifty and untrustworthy.
I'm not so sure about Franco, either. He's a gifted actor, but he seems to be sleepwalking, or at least just shuffling listlessly, through Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It's possible he doesn't care about the movie at all: Could it be one of his winking little experiments, a gag along the lines of pretending to host the Oscars while not really doing anything? Franco has become so meta- that it's almost impossible to take anything he does, or any character he plays, at face value. It doesn't help that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of picture in which one character, about to witness some dastardly procedure visited upon some poor unsuspecting laboratory animal, announces, "I didn't authorize that!" only to have another stride in just in time to say, "No -- I did!" Who's really in charge here? It's impossible to know. But these apes will have to evolve a lot further before they do any more rising.