How did it come to this – the Statue of Liberty planted on a Malibu beach? Apes overthrowing humanity and establishing a more peaceful (and possibly preferable) society? If these are questions keeping you up at night, go see the plodding and sometimes compelling “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing gene therapy ALZ-112, a potential cure for Alzheimer’s. When test chimps at the lab are compromised, he adopts an orphan chimp, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and raises the primate at home with his ailing father (John Lithgow), an Alzheimer’s patient. Caesar becomes Rodman’s test chimp, gradually growing smarter than most humans his age. Rodman then tests it on his father who temporarily recovers from his illness.
After an altercation with a neighbor, Caesar is forced to live in a holding facility with other less enlightened primates. There, he organizes the abused chimps and, stealing a batch of ALZ-112, upgrades his hirsute brethren. Mayhem ensues as the apes liberate their friends at the zoo and head for the freedom of the forest across the Golden Gate Bridge.
Filmmaker Rupert Wyatt broke through with 2008’s critically-acclaimed, “The Escapist.” That smart and tightly-drawn thriller hardly seems to qualify him for a summer tentpole, but the British newcomer acquits himself well here. Although his work with his cast is merely adequate, he excels in his action sequences. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” marks the first time performance-capture has been employed extensively on location and Wyatt, in his sophomore effort, seems neither overwhelmed by the technology nor the pressure of a studio tentpole. (Related story about the movie’s technology: New “Planet of the Apes” one-ups “Avatar”)
Franco easily tackles the father-son scenes with Lithgow but struggles as a believable genetic researcher and seems vaguely absent in his scenes with Caesar. In all fairness, playing opposite Andy Serkis as a chimp in a blue leotard dotted with motion sensors could be a bit distracting. But generally, Franco seems to be in the movie more for business reasons than creative fulfillment.
Freida Pinto stars as his girlfriend, Caroline, a thankless role that is drawn without a hint of deliberation. Pinto has a vivacious screen presence and breathtaking beauty, but her role could be eliminated and no one but her mom and her agent would notice. The same holds true of John Lithgow who, beyond serving as a test subject for ALZ-112, has little to do here. In fact, all of the actors seem to be in Caesar’s movie, the character with the least dialogue but the most presence.
The real star of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is Andy Serkis, a malleable performer who is building a career as the go-to mo-cap actor. His work in “The Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong” are indelible artistic and technical achievements that dovetail neatly with his latest incarnation, Caeser. Serkis gracefully treads the line between ape and man, conveying volumes with a simple glance or gesture.
Weta, the cutting-edge effects house behind “Avatar” and “The Lord of the Rings,” populates the new movie with CG apes that are detailed and specific but seldom fool the eye. The climactic confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge is creatively conceived by Wyatt and executed with kinetic energy as the apes advance on the bridge’s higher and lower levels, circumventing a traffic jam and hiding in the fog before unleashing a blistering attack.
Husband-wife producing team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver collaborated on the screenplay as they have on past movies like “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and “The Relic.” Their work here is uneven with wafer-thin characterizations and an interminable build that inexplicably puts off the ape-shit payoff until the final 20 minutes. As gratifying as the climactic conflict on the bridge is, it feels more like a penultimate moment than a grand culmination.
Twentieth Century Fox hopes to launch a franchise with “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” but like the four movies that followed the original there is really no reason for it other than bottom line concerns at the studio. The new movie is little more than adequate, which lately is saying a lot for a summer tentpole.