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Film Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011; Directed by Rupert Wyatt)

By most of the criteria upon which a film’s quality has traditionally been judged, this prequel/reboot/reimagining of the legendary sci-fi B-movie series is woefully inadequate. While the 1968 original was rife with delicious ironies and stinging social commentaries, Rise of the Planet of the Apes relies on canned cautions about medical experimentation and superficial finger-wagging concerning the mistreatment of animals (the opening sequence in an African jungle inverts the famous human capture by the apes in the original film, with human poachers snatching chimpanzees for sale to medical corporations). I imagine that its solid box office take may have been driven up by PETA bussing in audiences to have their ideological predilections fictionally re-confirmed, like Catholics and Evangelical Christians did with The Passion of the Christ (jokes, jokes; I’m not sure PETA could fill a Range Rover with loyal supporters at this point).

Give me freedom, and you can keep your black bananas.

Rise is also unable to boast one single compelling or even slightly competent human performance. The 1968 Apes at least had Charlton Heston alarming all of the ape-suited actors around him with booming line readings (“You cut up his brain, you bloody babboon!”). He flattened the scenery with his voice before chewing it at his own leisurely pace. This re-jigging substitutes James Franco as the dullest and most painfully literal personification of earnest, well-meaning liberal rationality imaginable, a blandly-named genetic scientist named Will Rodman who invents an Alzheimer’s wonder drug to try to save his mentally-degenerating father (John Lithgow). The strain instead turns apes into tactical geniuses and becomes an incubating phage that is hinted (not very subtly, but little here is) as the beginning of the end for human civilization.

Franco had made himself a target for derision in the year leading up to Rise, as his hipster intellectual pretensions have begun to overwhelm his undeniable thespianic gifts in the public eye. Strip away the NYU professor teaching students how to “turn poetry into film” and his widely-panned detached take on Oscar telecast hosting (so bad that he made Anne Hathaway look engaging; so bad that the producers are bringing back Billy Crystal, again), and there’s still a tremendously charming performer hiding behind the artifice. But Franco summoned more likability, pathos, and delightful self-effacement in a one-minute New York Times short film showing him chatting up and then kissing his own reflection in a mirror (the narcissistic ironies are stacking) than he bothers to do for a late-summer blockbuster that boasts him as the lead. Most likely, Franco felt he needed to balance his self-styled meta-commentary on leading-man fame with a by-the-book turn in a profitable Hollywood franchise. But maybe he could have brought a bit more of his humanity, his humour, his anything to the film than he does.

He’s not much outdone by his collaborators onscreen, either. Slumdog Millionaire‘s object of desire Freida Pinto is given nothing to work with in the supportive girlfriend role, Lithgow’s portrayal of creeping senility is so broadly comic as to be off-putting, and Brian Cox grumps about as the doyen of a prison-like primate preserve. Really, though, humanity in Rise is rife with pissant villains. These include Will’s antagonistic neighbour (David Hewlett, who is entirely too hot-headed to pass as the airline pilot that the plot requires him to be), his avaricious boss (David Oyewolo, who between this film, The Help, and Red Tails has gone all-in on smug Hollywood race-issue tokenism in the past year), and the petty tyrant of a keeper at the primate preserve, played by Tom Felton. Only the latter is all that enjoyable a presence, as he follows up his role as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films with another pretty faultless portrayal of a sneering little puke (and is the only choice here to utter the ironic reversal of Heston’s most famous line from the 1968 film).

You’re my bro, bro.

But Franco and every human in the film is outdone, in terms of performance, audience sympathy, and eventually the plot as well, by the apes. The central figure of these, the Spartacus of their simian revolution, is Caesar, played by Andy Serkis (a.k.a. Gollum and King Kong) through the CGI motion capture filter that he has crafted into his screen-acting trademark. The progeny of a lab chimp enhanced by Will’s genetic experiments, Caesar is saved from a purge of the test animals by the sympathetic scientist, who raises him as a pet-cum-surrogate-son in his own home until the demands of both human society and Caesar’s accruing, drug-elevated intelligence and self-awareness make that situation untenable.

Forcibly confined to the aforemention ape jail and experiencing a level of cruelty that he has never previously experienced, Caesar radicalizes like a simian Sayyid Qutb. He recognizes Will’s promises of a return home as a series of empty platitudes, and comes to see even his comparatively idyllic time under the scientist’s care as an unforgivable proscription of his freedom as well. In gradual, deliciously-revealed steps, Caesar plots an uprising of his ape brothers that culminates in a thrilling, climactic confrontation with the oppressive human authorities on the fog-shrouded Golden Gate Bridge. The workmanlike direction of British neophyte Rupert Wyatt gives itself up to the sweeping gestures in the closing act and improves markedly, aided immeasurably by the cinematography of Peter Jackson collaborator Andrew Lesnie and the score by Patrick Doyle.

The build-up to and the fulfillment of the titular rise saves the film from its initial B-movie-style clunkiness. Once the audience is given the permission to root for Caesar and fellow barricade-leapers (Occupy Redwood Forest!), Rise becomes undeniably enjoyable. The humans – nasty, petty and dull – deserve their comeuppance; the apes – soulful, thoughtful, and self-sacrificing (a gorilla named Buck saves Caesar in an obvious echo of the 1976 King Kong) – merit our support for their emancipation. Serkis and the effects team are quite often toiling valiantly in their own superior corner of this movie, crafting moments of sly wit and honest emotion that overcome the deadening, dumb silliness of much of the rest of the enterprise. Thanks in no small degree to his experience on Jackson’s Kong, Serkis embodies the sentient chimp with grace and aplomb; the computer effects people take care of the physics side, imparting the weight of Caesar’s motion with technical elegance.

With set architecture by Frank Lloyd Wright.

That Wyatt’s take on this material goes all-in on identification with the rising apes reflects an inescapable moment of widespread social dissatisfaction with the current efficacy and the future promise of human civilization. My earlier Occupy quip was not entirely glib; if only human rebellions could be as successful and uncompromised as that of Caesar and his simian fraternity (although the compromising is likely to come in the inevitable sequels, as ape civilization assumes the moral prejudices, repressive superstitions, and rigid hierarchies of the humans they have displaced).

Although Rise of the Planet of the Apes scratches at the roots of certain contemporary anxieties, it is entirely too goofy to have as much to say about our social reality as the 1968 original did in its time.  It does attempt to do more on this count than Tim Burton’s commercially successful but widely-panned remake from 2001, for which we can give some thanks at least. But it goes for the simpler overturnings of the Hollywood disaster epic, in the end, executing these elements well enough but without all that much imagination. That this process holds any appeal at all is a tribute to the craftsmen at work in the midst of the enterprise more than anything, and their continued efforts constitute the main potential of this new Planet of the Apes franchise.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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