In the Simpsons episode #3F15, “A Fish Called Selma,” handsome has-been actor Troy McClure is cast in the lead role of an off-off-Broadway production called “Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want to Get Off!” In the middle of a song, amid breakdancing apes and a funky ’80s beat riffing on “Rock Me Amadeus,” his character has an exchange with the smartest of the apes, Dr. Zaius: “Can I play the piano anymore?” “Of course you can!” “Well I couldn’t before!” The creators of the new Planet of the Apes reboot must’ve liked that joke, because their film incorporates that idea as a plot device.
Variously called Planet of the Apes: Genesis, Genesis: Apes, Caesar, Caesar: Rise of the Apes, Rise of the Apes, and finally given the unwieldy title Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the film has been in gestation since at least 2008, when Fox execs decided to reboot the series after Tim Burton’s muddled Mark-Wahlberg-starring 2001 remake failed to make much of an impact. Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (Peter Hyams’ 1997 mess of a horror movie, The Relic), Rupert Wyatt’s film makes multiple references—some oblique, some (“Get your hands off me…!”) up-front—to the original, and does take some story elements from 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which was the fourth in what is now a seven-film franchise that branched out into a couple of spinoff TV series—including an animated one—and various comic-books and novelizations. Other than a few character names and basic a premise, though, this new film is an origin story with only one task: to clear the slate for a new series of films and spinoffs, merchandising and future profit-making. (As such, Rise breaks completely from Burton’s confused, unnecessary film of a decade ago, and has virtually nothing in common with French novelist Pierre Boulle’s La Planète des singes.)
In the pivotal character of Charles Rodman, John Lithgow is saddled with one of the least sympathetic portrayals of Alzheimer’s disease in cinema history. Charles’ son, Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), is a scientist at GenSys (just where do these screenwriters come up with these fancy-sounding science-y corporation names?) who’s invented a miracle-drug to cure memory-related diseases in humans. (It also makes apes more intelligent.) After Bright Eyes, the first ape to receive alz-112, is shot when he becomes unruly and aggressive, Franco decides to take Bright Eyes’ progeny Caesar home in the hope of keeping him safe—and as a companion for his unwell father. Ceasar was passed alz-112 genetically, so he therefore displays progressively more developed cognitive powers than his fellow chimps.
Before Will ill-advisedly gives his father the drug, Charles is a muddled geriatric, a forgotten object of mild (audience) derision who struggles to work his way through a piano sonata; afterwards, with a hugely improved quality of life, he plays like Glenn Gould (minus the annoying humming and squeaky chair). When—surprise, surprise—Ceasar proves as fiery and unruly as his parent, he’s sent to an ape zoo where a decidedly Walter-Sobchak-looking Brian Cox and a surprisingly jock-like Draco Malfoy variously cage, tease, taser, and mistreat a few hundred of Ceasar’s closest relatives. Per the title (and all-too-revealing trailer), all hell expectedly breaks loose when Ceasar fashions a crude jail-breaking implement from a couple of sticks, some loose twine and a pocket-knife, and the apes head en masse across the Golden Gate Bridge, bound for the nearby redwood forest.
British director Rupert Wyatt came to attention when he made the prison-break thriller The Escapist with Brian Cox in 2008, but this new outing is very much a director-for-hire gig: there’s nothing even close to a directorial fingerprint anywhere near this. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is first and foremost a Weta Digital showcase: firing up their motion-capture equipment and once again enlisting the over-expressive facial muscles of ‘actor’ Andy Serkis, the special-effects company has laboured to create realistic-looking simians that interact in believable ways not only with their environment, but with the humans who populate it. The script makes way for bombastic set-pieces on so many occasions I lost count; when it sometimes resurfaces, the lines Franco, Lithgow and Freida Pinto (who pops up as an under-developed love interest) are perfunctory and expository at best.
Both Shia la Beouf and Tobey Maguire were attached to star at various stages, so we should be thankful that Franco could fit the film on his already full schedule, right next to that collaboration with dj /Rupture and Kalup Linzy. Franco is easily the second-best thing about the film (the first is the cgi/sfx), even though his character is side-lined in the third act to make way for the ensuing ape rampage. Patrick Doyle’s overwrought, manipulative action score is of the sort that has become standard for this sort of movie, so there’s little point even bringing it up. The camerawork (thankfully free of colour-correction) is mostly steady and calm—you can actually tell what’s happening in a given scene, unlike, say, a Michael Bay or Paul Greengrass film where frenzied, disruptive movement is the order of the day.
In a world where the film current rules, where you can (probably) calculate the profit of a film based on a formula, where the most a summer blockbuster has to aim to do is be loud enough and occasionally exciting enough to distract the teenagers who’ve paid to see it from their texting, talking, and tweeting—in this world, Rise of the Apes is a major success. By any other measure, though—and its technical, computer-driven achievements aside—the film is just another summer blockbuster. It happens to be the best of a bad crop, but when it comes down to it, this is just another vapid distraction from the monotony of life outside the multiplex.
At least, thank God, it wasn’t up-converted to 3-D.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in cinemas now.