(Judge Dredd Megazine, Rebellion)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes reflects the human/sentient ape condition by being both ingenious and dumb, sometimes at the same time. Directed by Britain’s Rupert Wyatt, it’s a second-try reboot, following the Planet of the Apes films of the ‘60s and ‘70s (themselves inspired by a French novel by Pierre Boulle), and Tim Burton’s misfiring remake in 2001.
This new version is both a potboiler action-thriller and a superhero origin story. The superhero is Caesar, a GM smart chimp played by Andy Serkis in his third big motion-capture role after Gollum and King Kong. You won’t find Caesar in the original Planet of the Apes film, which was the one with Charlton Heston, that statue, and “Damn you all to hell!” .The character comes from the less celebrated, low-budget ‘70s follow-ups, which were prequels and sequels to Planet in the timey-wimey way of the later Terminators.
Rise retcons Caesar; no longer the primate equivalent of John Connor, he’s now a by-blow of modern Frankenstein experiments. His mother was captured from the wild (which immediately privileges the ape perspective, with the humans shown as monstrous invaders); she was then injected with an gene-therapy drug aimed at curing Alzheimers, and shot dead for protecting her infant. Step up repentant lab-coat James Franco, who stashes the baby in his own tall house, adds a charming array of ape-friendly swings and hand-holds, and looks on proudly as Caesar grows rapidly into a new species.
None of this has much to do with the old Apes films; it’s neo-Frankenstein, complete with noisy parenting themes and sweeping pronouncements on bad science that are themselves worse science. Older viewers may be reminded of a more measured 1988 TV miniseries called First Born (available on DVD), in which Charles Dance’s scientist raised a human-ape hybrid. The Frankenstein legacy in Rise become overbearing when Caesar is impounded by the authorities and put under the thumb of a Mean Prison Guard, played by Tom Felton in petulant Draco Malfoy mode. His character might as well have been called Fritz, the moron lab-assistant in the 1931 Frankenstein who tortured Boris Karloff’s monster into a frenzy. From his makeshift introduction, Felton’s presence is numbing. We all know what’ll happen to him, indeed what must happen to him, but we still have to slog through a whole middle act before the shoe mercifully falls.
By then, the film has thrown up worse than Felton, including a sudden swing into chatty animal business with Simpsons-level subtitles (and we’re not talking about just the super-apes, no siree). After that, it’s hard to take the film seriously, which is a shame as Caesar is a charismatic enough hero to make his journey worth taking. His story has symbolic nuance (the moment when he discovers the fake painted horizon of the primate sanctuary; the whole business with him drawing and erasing the window from his home) and the weight of a familiar actor. Andy Serkis’s expressions of solemnity and outrage become increasingly recognisable, especially if you’ve seen the behind-the-mocap footage of the actor playing King Kong. One of Apes’s nicest subtleties is the way that the infant Caesar, who’s dependent on his human guardians, is Gollum-ish cute-creepy; his expressions only look really human once the “real” humans abandon him.
We expect Caesar to foment rebellion. Instead, the film is more of a Great Ape Escape, and Caesar is implausibly portrayed as a pacifist until the very last scenes. Consequently, when the mayhem finally starts in earnest, the spectacle feels toothless, without threat or gritty ambiguity. What stays in the mind are the exhilarating ape perspectives as we climb great redwood trees, or swarm over and under the Golden Gate Bridge. Perhaps the whole film should have locked us into Caesar’s perspective from start to finish, although then we wouldn’t have enjoyed the sensation of humans panicking before nature’s anarchy as the apes smash through glass and leap through offices.
Of the humans, a sweet John Lithgow as Franco’s Alzheimer-stricken father is balanced by the excruciating “villain” played by Britain’s David Oyelowo. The rest of the players, Franco included, are all zeroes by the second half. In the 1966 Planet of the Apes, Charlton Heston held the screen until the unforgettable end; in Rise, the apes triumph dramatically from the start. Anyone who ducked out the moment that the end credits appeared might think Rise’s title was false advertising, as the film’s world-changing reveal is left to an extra scene Easter Egg. Based on current box-office figures, the Apes franchise’s future seems up in the balance. I think it could well improve in sequels, if the writers come up with at least one decent human in the lost spaceship Icarus, which is presumably destined to splash down in Part 2. How about Bob Hoskins?