The production notes for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” starring James Franco acting almost as slack as he did at the Oscars, calls it “the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal – a character with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize, and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences will experience a real emotional bond.”
Didn’t “Zookeeper” already do that? What about “Rocky”?
But back to the matter at hand – or paw. Since the only really good “Planet of the Apes” movie was the 1968 original with Charlton Heston, I’ve always wondered why filmmakers can’t just leave well enough alone. The current foray is rationalized in those same production notes: “The film was impossible to make until the technology, invented for ‘Avatar’ and now advanced to a new dimension, caught up to the idea behind the movie.”
In other words, having a guy traipse around in a phony-looking monkey suit just doesn’t cut it anymore. What the world has been waiting for is Andy Serkis – Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and Kong in “King Kong” – traipsing around via performance capture technology. He plays Caesar, the supersmart chimpanzee whose education apparently does not include a single “Planet of the Apes” movie.
He got his smarts because Big Pharma scientist Will Rodman (Franco), hoping to reverse the dementia of his musician father (a fine John Lithgow), has developed a virus that might restore damaged human brain tissue. Caesar is the offspring of one of Will’s simian experimental subjects, whose violent rampaging causes the trials to be shut down. Will does the only sensible thing – he takes orphan baby Caesar home to live with him and his dad.
(By the way, this movie would work very well on a double bill with “Project Nim,” the recent documentary about the homeschooled chimp. Chimps seem to be all the rage now. Is it because so many of the humans in movies these days act like monkeys anyway? Might as well opt for the real deal.)
Franco isn’t very convincing as a brooding scientist – he might have benefited from some performance capture technology, or at least better dialogue. (The screenwriters are Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa.) This is the kind of movie where the characters are always saying things like, “What are you saying?” Plot points are continually reiterated. Obviously director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t think we in the audience are as smart as Caesar.
It all comes to a head when Caesar leads an ape revolt that spills out onto the Golden Gate Bridge. I thought there might be a “Kong”-like moment when Caesar declares his love for the comely primatologist played by Freida Pinto, but no such luck. Instead, we’re left hanging in that twilight zone where fade-out morphs into sequel. Thanks, but I’ve already passed on this “Apes” series the first time around. Grade: C- (Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality, and brief strong language.)