Film Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This by-the-numbers prequel that looks set to re-launch Fox's ape-supremacy franchise removes some of the stink left by Tim Burton's misbegotten remake but doesn't bring anything new to the mythology.

You know you’re in trouble these days when even James Franco can’t be bothered to deliver much of a performance. Even in sophomoric mistakes like Your Highness, Franco showed up ready and willing to engage energetically with the material. But in Rupert Wyatt’s energetic but ultimately ho-hum genetic twist on the Planet of the Apes origin story, Franco’s character doesn’t do much but furrow his brow and make bad decisions.

Franco plays Will, a purportedly brilliant geneticist working for a San Francisco research lab who is testing a potential new cure for Alzheimer’s on chimpanzees. After one of the chimps goes on a rampage and has to be put down, Will secretly takes home her baby son, whom he names Caesar. Will keeps Caesar at home for years, monitoring his cognitive development, highly advanced because of the genes passed on by his mother. He keeps doggedly working on the cure, not least because of the suffering of his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (John Lithgow).

But Caesar’s increasing intelligence and curiosity don’t mix well with Will’s quiet neighborhood. No matter how often Will’s reminded by his animal doctor girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto), that “it’s appropriate to be afraid” of primates, his tunnel vision is complete. So when Will starts developing a new and more powerful drug that can be spread by aerosol, under the badgering of his money-hungry boss (British stage actor David Oyelowo in a well-tuned and feral performance), civilization-changing tragedy is not entirely surprising.

As in the Lord of the Rings films, Andy Serkis’ sly and witty performance in a motion-capture suit as the adult Caesar puts most of the non-suited actors around him to shame. Director Wyatt relies far too much on some strangely unconvincing CGI to render most of his primates. In scene after scene, apes and chimps fling themselves around their cages and through trees with herky-jerky and blurry movements—almost never does it appear that we see a real animal. In the midst of all this too-obvious fakery, Serkis’ complex rendering of slowly burning outrage, particularly in the scenes where Caesar is confined to a dodgy animal shelter run by a sleazy Brian Cox, provides much of the film’s only honest drama. For the rest of the time, Franco looks confused, Pinto looks beautiful, and the filmmakers twiddle away their time by inserting not-so-clever twists on well-remembered elements from the first film (the line “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” gets an airing, and we see original Planet star Charlton Heston on a briefly glimpsed television screen).

Even with Serkis, though, this is not a film that adds much of anything to the already quite well-developed Apes mythology. By reworking the primate-rebellion storyline of the original film series’ concluding entry (1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) in an action-friendly way that leaves all of the series’ obvious but potent cultural commentary aside, Rise doesn’t give viewers much of a reason to await the inevitable next installment. Whereas the first films followed Rod Serling’s intention to use a great pulp science-fiction scenario to hold a mirror up to human society’s failings like slavery, war-mongering and intolerance, this one reflects nothing but a failure of the imagination.