Warning: This review discusses aspects of the plot and key scenes.
Whatever the truth about our homonoid friends, Hollywood likes to think of them as dirty. Damn dirty. There’s no escaping the link between those tree fetishists and pestilence. In Wolfgang Petersen’s Outbreak they incubated a virus that threatened to destroy human civilisation and its discontents; Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later found them as test subjects, transmitting a wild animal’s aggression and bloodlust to humble Londoners, while in Gilliam’s Twelve Monkeys, the very mention of their name made them culpable symbolically, if not in deed, for a global catastrophe that drove man underground.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes, adapted from the novel by Pierre Boulle, inverted the prejudice. Humans were “a walking pestilence” for orangutan scientist Dr Zaius, and they needed to be controlled. Science fiction, when in such playful and acutely satirical form as this, is a pleasure; it’s a wit that ridicules our most cherished assumptions. The problem with Rupert Wyatt’s prequel is that it has no such wit. Its themes are obvious, inherited from better material, it employs a simpleton’s morality and it’s po-faced to a frame. There are superficial thrills; moments of great intensity in the company of the animals, but it’s not a very likable movie. Wyatt’s prologue is written in the primitive language of the signing apes, in contrast to the florid prose of Schaffner’s classic.
The screenplay is clunky, like that title; efficient, but lacking punch as though key scenes were plotted on a mythology map and software employed in joining the dots. The need to get it done, to get the characters down, maintain momentum, get to the next inciting incident, leads to some head scratching inconsistencies, not least in the first act; the kind that can pull you out of a film and do.
The scientist, Rodman, rendered inanimate by James Franco, is, we’re told, driven by the need to discover an Alzheimer’s cure because of his ailing father. Time, you imagine, would be of the essence. Yet when Franco brings home baby Caesar, the computer generated offspring of an executed ape, proven to have improved cognitive function following Franco’s treatment, the writers, who’ve now introduced the future Ape leader but need to move the story forward, advance the movie’s chronology by three years. This makes a fool of Franco’s genius, as it’s only now that it occurs to him to steal a batch of his own serum and test it on his Pap. Would he really wait three years when he had a potential cure at his fingertips?
Another flash forward, this time five years, sets up an equally improbable scene with Franco’s insipid love interest, Freida Pinto (both characters physically identical to a hair length, despite the passage of time). The intervening years have seen their relationship blossom in Caesar’s company. Pinto’s an intelligent woman, so might have noticed his extraordinary smarts. Might you put two and two together and assume it’s something to do with your boyfriend’s research? After all he’s a geneticist who experiments on apes. Nevertheless she’s open mouthed at the revelation that their live in chimp, who wears human clothes and has the mind of a teenager, was a product of unethical experimentation.
Would he wait that long to tell her? Didn’t she think it was strange that Franco’s father, hitherto suffering with advanced Alzheimer’s, had got better, the only human on Earth to do so? But the writers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes hope you’ll neither notice nor care, because you’re fixated on Caesar and the technical virtuosity employed in creating the character.
The emphasis remains there throughout, in hoc to the poster promise of an ape-centric yarn. That would be fine but Wyatt’s forgotten, though we never can, that the humans must be equally animated. In the original Planet of the Apes series this wasn’t a problem; the Apes had evolved to master language; they were bona fide characters. In Rise they’re wild, they’re grunts. Andy Serkis does an excellent job occupying the half way house between man and beast but he can’t carry the picture alone. He needs human backup.
What is it about James Franco? He’s so inert – a poor man’s Diane Fossey. Aside from the real problem, that he can’t stir up enough of his natural intelligence (he recently enrolled on a Doctorial program) and have it rise to the surface, he’s just so joyless. As the audience were always going to show for the apes, why not take a risk with the human casting? A little madness behind the eyes, a little dishevelment with that lab coat, might have given the movie some kick. Perhaps Kevin Bacon just had too much on his slate.
Still, this is the apes’ story and for the most part they tell it very well. Computer animation has made them both more and less natural than in previous entries. More, because they look and act like real beasts, liberated from the constraint of putting a monkey suit on a man (don’t give me any hassle about the differences between monkeys and apes, James Franco didn’t know and they were his test subjects). Less, because these siminoids still draw attention to their own artifice – the technology can’t yet fool the brain. Often they’re seamless participants but occasionally the artists employed in their creation over indulge, utilising impossible tracks around tree trunks as the apes ascend. It’s all very exhilarating but any sense of reality is lost in those unfilmable swoops.
That Serkis’ simul-ape provides the only human moment in the picture is this review’s coda, if not the movie’s, though both tell the same story. It’s a primal scream – the film’s one genuine ambush on the audience. Caesar’s first defiant word, however, drawn out in rage, is piggy backed onto an iconic line from the original 1968 movie. This is the problem. Rise has no surprises of its own; it can only get a rise from the crowd by trading on the series mythology to undercut or frame expectations. Caesar finds his own voice but the film never does. It’s ending, which again recalls Schaffner’s film, alludes to a story we know by rote. Wyatt thinks its enough to repackage old material, paint a glaze on it and serve it up as new but he’s trying to slip us a retarding serum. Time the audience spat it out perhaps?