Review: ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

Will Leitch
·Editor

1. The apes of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" have more life and personality to them than the humans in the film do, but let's not be unclear here: They're both cartoons. The apes have more care and effort invested in their performances than the humans do, and they certainly move with more fluidity and grace, but for all the talk of the supposed breakthrough in CGI technology the apes are said to represent, the film still has a "Roger Rabbit" feel to it sometimes. (Particularly when the apes are babies.) "Apes" has its moments, including an action conclusion that is conceived and constructed with intelligence and a sense of spatial reality ... but getting to that point, particularly when people are talking, is quite the slog.

2. Like so many other "the world is accidentally destroyed by a well-meaning doctor" movies ("I Am Legend," "28 Days Later"), the hyperintelligent apes in this long-gestating prequel are created by a doctor trying to cure a disease. James Franco, in a dull performance by an actor who's obviously bored, is a scientist trying to cure Alzheimer's, not because it's a horrific disease that has claimed the lives of millions, but because his dad has it and his boss wants to get rich. Alzheimer's is a popular disease in movies -- we just saw it in "Friends With Benefits" -- because it leads to quick and efficient sympathy and it allows elderly actors instant hammy pathos. (In "Friends With Benefits," Richard Jenkins; here, John Lithgow.) My family's fortunate enough, so far, not to have been touched by Alzheimer's, but it must be frustrating for those which have to watch this devastating disease dramatized by overemoting thespians acting confused and not wearing pants. Also: Like in "Deep Blue Sea," having the search for a cure to this disease become the reason that animals turn supersmart and attack us.

3. See, Franco, while attempting to force the brain's cells to reconstitute themselves (at least that's what I think he said; this is not a movie that's concerned with the scientific particulars), ended up with a medical product that actually makes test subjects smarter. That's theoretically great when you use it on humans but not so great when you use it on apes, who are bigger and stronger than humans. The "Planet of the Apes" movies always serve as a fond reminder that the only thing saving us from being eaten by three-quarters of the animal kingdom is our intelligence, a fact that's easy to lose sight of when reading about, say, the debt crisis, or "Don't Forget The Lyrics." Next thing you know, Caesar, an ape that Franco inexplicably took home to raise as a baby (a ludicrous plot point that makes less sense the more you think about it, even if you haven't seen "Project Nim"), is leading the apes in a rebellion, eventually breaking into the laboratory, stealing the formula and giving it to the rest of his crew.

4. This is all done in clunking, plodding fashion. Honestly, there isn't a single human in this picture who isn't an ineffectual, one-note idiot, from Franco's always-a-few-steps-behind scientist to David Oyelowo's sinister capitalist to Freida Pinto's gorgeous nonentity Loyal Girlfriend role to, perhaps worst, Tom Felton's laughably Snidley Whiplash ape wrangler. Felton played Draco Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" movies, so his brattish obnoxiousness should work here, but instead he's a foppish dolt who inspires laughter every minute he's on screen. (And saddling him with the "get your stinking hands off me, you damned dirty ape" line is just being cruel.) I know this is a movie about apes, and how lifelike they are, but seriously, it's difficult not to cheer for the apes to destroy everything and take over, if this is really the best humanity has to offer. Also: It's difficult to remember a time when it was so obvious that the actors were talking to green screens or mo-capped actors: "Apes" does an adequate job with the monkey effects but is oddly slapdash about matching up what the apes are looking at and what the humans are. You can actually see the actors grasping for something to react to. In an age where James Cameron can get the only decent Sam Worthington performance while having him stare at a blue wall for four hours, this is inexcusable.

5. Once the apes finally get moving, the film at last soars, especially during an inspired set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge, in which the apes climb up, down, over and under one of the country's most cherished landmarks. What's most impressive about it is how it shows that the apes' intelligence has already surpassed the humans'; while they're coordinating attacks and improvising, the human cops are flailing around impotently. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has some life to it as an action film, but heavens, every time anyone opens their mouth, man or beast, you'll feel like someone figured out a way to sneak in groundbreaking CGI into your middle schooler's class play. I will say this for the effects in this film: They almost make the human beings look lifelike.

Grade: C