Ninety percent of the time, I sit down to a movie with no expectations at all. Occasionally, I’ll anticipate, as I do any movie directed Paul Thomas Anderson or starring Daniel Day-Lewis or Meryl Streep. I anticipate the next Rahmin Bahrani film, because his “Chop Shop” and “Man Push Cart” moved me. I look forward to anything with Jessica Chastain. But most of the time I try to go in to a movie untainted by critical praise or slaughter as a means to judge it fairly. I broke my rule for “Where the Wild Things Are” a few years back. That film was preceded by one of the most extraordinary trailers I’d every seen; that it was directed by the great Spike Jonze didn’t hurt. I had high expectations. But “Where the Wild Things Are” disappointed me.
And so did “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” It’s my own fault. I was sucked in by good marketing, strong critical word-of-mouth, and genuine affection for the source material. I expected a thrilling, high-function adventure film. What I got was a generic nature-run-amok mess, anchored by stilted characters and dialogue not quite right to the ear.
I’ll make this brief: James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist who has discovers what might be a cure for Alzheimer’s. Tests on monkeys prove positive, until one of the subjects goes berserk and is shot dead, leaving behind an infant that Will takes home and dubs Caesar. Will tests the drug on his own father, Charles, who conveniently enough has Alzheimer’s. Charles improves at first, but when his immune system fights back, he regresses. Meanwhile, Caesar, now practically a fully-functioning human in big-boy clothes, attacks a callous neighbor and is sent to a sanctuary, where he and the other simians suffer the abuses of the sanctuary owner’s son. Will develops a stronger version of the drug (in record movie time, no less), which works, but has the unfortunate side-effect of being fatal to humans. Caesar steals the drug and gives to the other monkeys. Pissed off, they rise up, break out, and cause general mayhem on the Golden Gate Bridge.
If my summary of the movie’s plot sounds basic and boring, it’s because I have little to work with. There’s nothing in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” that is the least bit interesting, or portrayed in an interesting way, or even lives up to the possibilities of its unusually long title. How could a film about monkey’s growing superhuman intelligence and attacking a city be so pedestrian? Cheesy, yes. Hokey? You bet. But boring? I couldn’t have thought it possible, but here we are. I throw partial blame to the screenplay, by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, which seems content to be nothing more than a generic action film. The action, when it comes, is perfunctory when it should be exciting. We get the broad archetype of the powerful CEO who knows the drug is fatal to humans, but demands out of greed that the experiments proceed — just like the mayor in “Jaws” before him, and countless other wrong-headed action movie bureaucrats. How many more times will we have to see this? James Franco, who can be quite a gifted actor when he wants to be (as he was in “Milk”), is given nothing more fascinating to do than run around screaming “Casear, no!” and issue ominous portents like “You have no idea what you’re dealing with.” John Lithgow, bless his heart, has the thankless task of wandering around looking bewildered until the script has the mercy to shuffle him away. And Freida Pinto, as Will’s supportive girlfriend, fades hopelessly into the background, all but forgotten by the movie.
I haven’t yet mentioned the special effects. I want to tread carefully, out of respect for the craft. I realize that modern CGI can be wondrous, as it was in “Avatar,” and is one the most arduous and painstaking of arts. But I was constantly aware I was watching CGI monkeys on the rampage. They never seemed to fit in the same time and space as their live-action counterparts. There was something false about their presence on screen. That knowledge left me with little sympathy for Caesar — who, by all accounts, should have inspired the most — because I was never allowed to believe he was wholly real. The motion-capture of Caesar is spectacular, aided tremendously by the gifted actor, Andy Serkis, who brought a real sense of pathos to Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.” But even Serkis’ remarkable performance isn’t enough to forestall the obvious special effects around him.
I said before I set my hopes for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” too high. Did that influence whether I thought the movie was good or bad? Of course not; I judge every movie the same. But I think if I’d better managed my expectations, I might have come away less disappointed, if that makes sense. Again, my fault. On a positive note, the ending of “Rise” sets us up for an obvious sequel. Here’s to hoping they get things right the second time.
2011; starring James Franco, John Lithgow; directed by Rupert Wyatt; 105 min; rated PG-13