Friday, 19 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - reviewed by Jacob Edwards

Shakespeare’s Caesar shakes spear – tossed by Hollywood, eloquent as a lovelorn salad.

A film that is produced by its writers is a bit like a self-published novel. It dispenses with those pesky editors and allows the authors an unusual, at times unhealthy amount of creative control. Theoretically, this could be wonderful (god complex knows how many movies have been scuppered by interfering bigwigs) but equally it can facilitate a merry, unrestrained hurling of plot confetti – a self-congratulatory, naive celebration in which the storyline is well and truly shredded.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes sees Will Rodman (James Franco) testing an experimental Alzheimer’s drug on chimpanzees. His commitment to the research stems from the deteriorating condition of his father (John Lithgow) and leads Rodman to carry on even after the project loses backing. He secretly adopts Caesar (Gollum’s Andy Serkis), an orphaned chimp genius whose mother was part of the programme, and discovers that the Alzheimer’s drug, which Rodman is driven to test on his father, not only repairs but also enhances brain function. Rodmans Senior and Junior, along with Caesar, live happily... but not ever after.

At time of writing (one day after the film’s release), Rise of the Planet of the Apes has notched 1,000+ votes at 7.6 on IMDB. Splitting the amalgamative, we might assign seven to the first half of the film, and point-six to the second, but in both cases that might be over-charitable. As Caesar grows and love interest Freida Pinto (Rodman’s, not Caesar’s – this isn’t King Kong) is thrown into the mix, Rodman Senior develops antibodies to the virus that facilitates delivery of the Alzheimer’s drug, thus allowing the disease itself to return. Rodman senior regresses, and while the audience takes a moment to ponder the medical feasibility of a genetically inheritable virus, Caesar is bundled off to a sanctuary-cum-concentration camp for errant primates, and so the CGI high jinks begin.

Franco and Lithgow portray a very genuine, very tender father/son relationship, and there are some heartbreaking familial scenes also between chimps (plus orang-utan and gorilla) at the primate facility. This element, however, falls very much by the wayside as Silver and Jaffa belatedly remember the title of the film, and scramble to pull it into line as some sort of "origin" movie to the 60s and 70s Planet of the Apes franchise. This ad hoc change of direction, which is evident in several write-as-you-go script revisions (this is where I work; here is a zoo where other chimps live) and at least one ham-fisted contrivance (look, an Alzheimer’s drug canister that nobody’s noticed lying around; oh, and there’s a spaceship lost out near Mars somewhere) is not only galling in its own right; it is part of a deliberately ambiguous ‘setting up of sequels’ wherein whetting the audience’s appetite is clearly seen as more important than presenting a satisfying or in any way self-contained film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends on a ludicrous note; or, as director Rupert Wyatt would put it, ‘with certain questions’,1  not least of which are How are Caesar and Co. going to avoid retaliation (or indeed eat; just survive) long enough for the slow-acting events of the (rather smug) closing credits to play out? and, perhaps more pressingly, If the sole purpose of this film was to set up its sequel, will my cinema ticket be valid for that one as well?

Not that you’d go, even if it were. "Evolution", as the promotional poster so deftly puts it, "becomes revolution". (And many are the people who wish they’d seen that before delving into their wallets for the price of admission.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffers from, and so inflicts upon the viewer, two hallmarks of modern day Hollywood. Firstly, an irredeemable caricaturing that would have even the ancient Greek playwrights cringing at its lack of subtlety. There’s the dollar-obsessed businessman; the too-angry next door neighbour; even Tom Felton as a transplanted Draco Malfoy reprise. This reliance on stock, one dimensional characters, undermines anything that the movie might hope to achieve dramatically. Secondly – and this is more of an explosive, building-dropping demolition than a mere undermining – there is the now rampant "We’ve got CGI, look what we can do with it" mentality that spurns the bona fide approach of, say, Project X (dir. Jonathan Kaplan, 1987) and instead sees Caesar and his fellow chimpanzees emerge from the phone booth not only as super intelligent but also as super fast, super strong and, frankly, super ludicrous. Why the preponderance for crashing (unscathed) through glass panels? What ape worth half its newfound IQ in bananas would make a three-storey jump (again, unscathed) rather than taking the stairs? And while we’re about it, why do chimps liberated from the zoo become just like their smartened fellows? Could it be that the brain sharpening drug is transmitted also through osmosis?

Perhaps the biggest question – spoiler, if such a movie can be spoiled by external factors – is why the Alzheimer’s drug, in more highly concentrated form, suddenly becomes a human killer. Notwithstanding the writers’ implicit need to spell things out for those who are hard of understanding, wouldn’t it be more in keeping with the original Planet of the Apes premise for the drug merely to lessen human intelligence? (Yes, a bit of a stretch, but the bar hasn’t exactly been raised all that high. One could artificially stimulate production of neurotransmitters, perhaps, but make the resulting synaptic connections recursive, lessening the memory loss of Alzheimer’s but stultifying the development of new thoughts. No? Well, that’s just two minutes’ worth of opposable thumb-twiddling.) The sad truth is that such a drug already exists, widely distributed and taking approximately 1¾ hours to deliver.

As the box office will attest, people are queuing up for it.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt. 20th Century Fox, 105 mins

1. Giroux, Jack, “Interview: Director Rupert Wyatt on ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ and The End of Cinema”, Film School Rejects, 15 April 2011 []

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