Friday, August 5, 2011

Chimps Don't Use Muni: Rise Of the Planet Of the Apes

This review originally appeared on the San Francisco Appeal.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a prequel and a remake. Kind of. I'm not entirely sure if it's supposed to be a prequel to the original 1968 Charlton Heston version of "Planet of the Apes," or the 2001 Tim Burton remake, mainly because I'm still confused about what the hell happened at the end of that Burton remake. Was it another planet? Did Marky Mark go forward in time? Or was it both?

I suppose it ultimately doesn't matter, as this movie is, above all else, a reboot attempt, so all previous movies should just fade into the mist, like so many gorillas.

In what appears to be, more or less, present-day San Francisco, scientist Will Rodman, (James Franco), is working on a virus that can act as a cure for Alzheimer's. After successful tests on chimps, Rodman and Steven Jacobs, (David Oyelowo), the mogul funding his project, present their findings, only to have the whole thing come crashing down around them when their star chimp, Bright Eyes (heh), goes on a rampage in the lab, ultimately getting shot right in front of all those potential investors. Needless to say, wallets slam shut.

Of course, things are not as it seems with that chimp. Not only was she gaining intelligence, she was also pregnant, had given birth, and hid her baby from everyone in that lab. (Obviously, the lab techs weren't taking any of that smart serum themselves, if they were dumb enough to miss all that.)

Rodman takes home the baby, and raises it like a son, naming him Caesar (heh heh). Caesar is no ordinary chimp, and over the years that pass, demonstrates increased intelligence, learns sign language, and develops a fondness for sweatsuits. Rodman continues to work on the serum on his own, since he has a personal stake in its success: His father, (John Lithgow), has Alzheimer's. And with no lab animals to test on, he uses his father as a guinea pig, with successful results.

Of course, keeping a super chimp in a San Francisco house is a recipe for disaster, and after a run in with the world's most unlucky neighbor, Caesar is sent to a primate sanctuary in San Bruno (LOL).

At this point, the movie becomes a chimps-in-prison story, as that sanctuary is nothing more than San Quentin, if San Quentin were run by the original Hannibal Lecter and Draco Malfoy. And aside from the absolutely atrocious performance by the aforementioned Tom Felton, (apparently he's making a career out of poorly-played villains), this is the funnest part of the film, with primates speaking in sign language to each other--complete with subtitles!--and a requisite prison yard brawl in which a new king of the cell block is crowned.

As with any good prison picture, a prison break is inevitable, and it's here that movie gets utterly ridiculous, (as if a movie about super-intelligent chimps and a scientist played by James Franco wasn't already). You can either go with it, and accept that about 50 primates in the sanctuary can turn into an army of hundreds once they free their zoo-captive kin, and can somehow make it from San Bruno to the Golden Gate Bridge, via downtown San Francisco, in a short amount of time--or not. (Although, since they didn't take Muni, I suppose that's plausible.)

I had a harder time just going with it, mainly because by this point the bad acting and dialogue had just worn me down. I can imagine James Franco being in on the joke, knowing that the movie he was in was totally ludicrous, but I don't think anyone told poor Frieda Pinto, (who plays his love interest, and zoo vet), as she says such lines as "I love chimps...but I fear them too," with utterly no sense of irony.

Caesar the chimp is played by Andy Serkis, who brought Gollum and King Kong to life using the same motion-capture set-up. He's good, (especially when compared to James Franco), but he's not nearly as good as he was as Gollum or King Kong. When I watched the end of "King Kong," I was such an emotional wreck, I had to look away from the movie screen and stare at a wall in an attempt to stop my crying.

In a movie heavily reliant of computer effects, you had better hope you have a director who really knows how to bring out the humanity that is the heart of a motion-captured performance. Peter Jackson is a director who can. But Rupert Wyatt, the director of "Rise," can't, and as a result, I never felt empathy for Caesar, or for any of the other primates in the film, and it's for that reason that the movie ultimately failed for me.

There's fun to be had in it, for sure, but I can only hope that if it spawns a sequel, they don't resort to CG again, and instead return to those original monkey masks and bad hair, because if there's anything that can make us sympathize with an intelligent super-chimp, it's the sight of one with a bad haircut.

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