“He spoke. Your ape. He spoke.”
Franklin J. Schaffner’s Planet of the Apes (1968) endures as a landmark in science fiction cinema as much as a result of its allegorical readings as its famous closing scene. Its five sequels, whilst perhaps never achieving the iconic status of their progenitor, retained their cult popularity and profitability, spawning two spin-off television series (one live action, the other animated) and an ill-judged remake from Tim Burton in 2001. The budgets may have decreased as the series of films progressed, but for the most part some (often ham-fisted) attempt was made to continue the social commentary first instated by writers Rod Serling (The Twilight Zone) and Michael Wilson in their adaptation of the original novel by Pierre Boulle.
In a bid to steal a share of the summer dollar away from the ubiquitous superheroes crowding our screens, writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Relic) follow a formula tried and tested by their caped and spandexed peers, seeking cultural regenesis by delivering an origin story that aims to both contemporise and rejuvenate an extinct property with an eye firmly set on future franchising success.
Ignoring the time travel based explanation for the apes’ rise set out in the second sequel Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Jaffa and Silver opt to re-introduce Caesar (leader of the ape uprising in 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and originally the hyper-intelligent offspring of Cornelius and Zira in Escape…) as the infant of Chimp #9, captured for use in Dr Will Rodman’s (James Franco) simian-stage testing of a potential neuro-regenerative cure for Alzheimer’s. When #9 is shot dead after running amok in the testing facility, the rest of the apes are put down and Rodman’s program swiftly closed, his colleague putting responsibility for baby Caesar’s future in his hands.
The heightened intelligence exhibited by his mother is passed genetically onto Caesar, secretly raised at home by Rodman and girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto), and when Rodman administers the same drug and its subsequent strain to his Alzheimer’s suffering father, it becomes clear that not only does his gene therapy allow the brain to repair itself, it actively improves all cognitive ability, a side-effect shared by the increasingly intelligent and aware Caesar.
The narrative punches along from the start, delivering expositional beats in quick succession with little pause for anything resembling character development. To summarize any further the plot’s progression would leave little reason to actually see the picture, like many origin story/re-boots of its kind essentially little more than the first act of a larger narrative arc.
The supporting cast of human characters are thinly sketched, with Tom Felton and David Oyelowo struggling especially to flesh out their parts beyond the singular dimension offered by the script. Freida Pinto adds little in the way of charisma to her woefully underwritten role, and James Franco as an Alzheimer’s-curing neuroscientist requires perhaps a greater suspension of disbelief than the image of a bipedal talking monkey. Only John Lithgow lifts the material he’s given to work with, but as the story shifts its focus to the ape sanctuary in which Caesar becomes incarcerated, his character is swiftly sidelined.
Where the original film and its sequels attempted some form of socio-political commentary to varying degrees of success, Jaffa and Silver offer nothing with which to engage subtextually and Rupert Wyatt’s (The Escapist) functional direction is efficient at best, if over-reliant on moody close-ups to sell the underwhelming CGI. Much has been made of the effects work, and Andy Serkis (still the go-to guy for motion-captured performance) certainly injects Caesar with a vivacity that a computer alone would be unable to replicate, but it seems that the closer we get to photorealism in computer generated effects, the more we notice the deficiencies and imperfections. It marred the bizarrely rejuvenated Jeff Bridges in last year’s Tron : Legacy and the fluidity of movement displayed by the apes here distracts more than the caricatured variants in the original film, where the requirement of a level of suspension of disbelief was a given. We’re asked to buy the CGI on face value, and on the evidence presented here, it’s still not yet up to the task.
It may well prove that a sequel to Rise of the Planet of Apes will take the franchise into more interesting territory, but it’s always been the case that it takes more than efficient CGI to tell a story, no matter how reliant on its implementation a film may be. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) works in spite of its budgetary limitations when read as a product of its time, its synonymy with the years of violent protest that preceded it, beginning with the Watts Riots of 1965, adding a deeper level of resonance that whilst perhaps often a facile oversimplification, at least went for something beyond spectacle alone, the only thing on which Rise of the Planet of the Apes chooses to rely.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes – 2011 – USA – 108 mins – Dir : Rupert Wyatt