As I look back on Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, it becomes more and more obvious that a good deal of the film is vapid and without substance. There’s a love line that exists between James Franco (127 Hours) and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) that only serves to remind us how well-cast they were in their respective Danny Boyle films — and, unfortunately, how blatantly true the opposite is here. Neither actor is ineffective — their seemingly by-the-numbers approach hardly veers the film off course — yet there’s never really the feeling that either of them are getting under the skin of their characters. The same can be said of much of the supporting cast, which includes John Lithgow, Brian Cox, and Tom Felton — all good actors, by the way.
However, it would be unfair — and radically inaccurate — not to mention how big of a part the script plays in all of this. Co-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have done a decent job of outlining an involving origin story — you can indeed expect follow-up films in the coming years — but, along the way, they’ve really failed to develop compelling characters. (The writing, I should mention, is significantly more responsible for the characters’ mundanity that the miscasting.) Franco’s San Francisco-based scientist plays almost as bland as the white lab coats he wears to work everyday, where he’s testing a drug on chimpanzees that could potentially cure Alzheimer’s disease.
Lithgow plays Franco’s father, who, of course, suffers from Alzheimer’s himself. As the title suggests, though, mere human drama isn’t enough to propel the franchise. Franco’s Will Rodman eventually takes one of his pet projects, an ape he names Caesar (Andy Serkis), under his wing and into his home. The mystery drug, labelled ALZ-112, works wonders on Caesar almost instantly. His level of intelligence rises exponentially, convincing Will to test out the drug on his ailing father, on whom it works the same magic at first. But, alas, some vicious antibodies and an unfortunate neighborhood dispute soon leave the group of characters in shambles. (Oh, I forgot to bring up the Pinto character. She’s a veterinarian, and her budding romance with Will is represented by the title card “Three Years Later” — somebody cue the shot of the two of them having a picnic and smiling.)
The low point comes when Caesar is ordered to live in a primate shelter housed by the sadistic father-son combination of Brian Cox and Tom Felton. These two men, apparently unqualified for any other professional arena, settle on abusing apes as their life’s passion. It’s startling how much pleasure the Felton character seems to get out of pummeling Caesar with blasts of hose water. It’s a character that I certainly despised — so I guess the film did its job there — but also one that I didn’t believe for a moment. If he gets this defensive when an ape tests his patience, I wouldn’t even want to know what he’d do to someone who stole his lunch money as a kid.
To be sure, I’m being a little too harsh on the film. For no stretch of its 105-minute running time does the film drag significantly; it’s also a decent step above a handful of franchise blockbusters of recent years. And it does accomplish something noteworthy with the Caesar character. The acclaim of Serkis’ motion-captured performance has been bloated immensely — I find the Oscar buzz extremely unwarranted, frankly — but it’s a worthy turn that ultimately creates the film’s most engaging character. You know a monumental point has been reached in cinematic technology when you’d rather observe a computerized ape than a romantic encounter between James Franco and Freida Pinto.
To Wyatt’s credit, too, the action scenes are staged niftily. The climactic battle sequence, set mostly on and around San Fran’s Golden Gate Bridge, is, I’m pleased to report, rather stunning. It’s one of those rare, extended action sequences that don’t feel redundant after the first couple of minutes. It’s actually, for my money, the highlight of the film — a film that, overall, is a safe and inconsequential endeavor, but also one that will lead to hundreds of millions in box-office receipts and a couple of sequels that will, in all likelihood, turn in a similar profit. In other words, it’s just like a lot of the tentpoles these days.
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