Though not screened for critics by WW press deadlines, the latest iteration of the Planet of the Apes franchise has received mostly glowing reviews. We beg to differ.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
WW Critic's Score: 17
Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens with a family of CGI chimpanzees, in single file, nobly navigating a lush forest—the kind of sprawling, fairy tale forest that doesn't really exist these days—when they're suddenly attacked from all sides by sneering poachers who snatch them up in nets and cage them and ship them off to a research facility in San Francisco. In quick cuts of bright green and earthy brown and pure white flashing teeth, the scene makes a false promise: These motherfucking apes are going to get their revenge and it's going to be awesome.
Okay, so the apes—or the Children of the Apes, anyway—do get a bit of revenge. But 105 minutes later, very little awesomeness has come to pass: Just a lot of stiff, hammy lines from central beefcake James Franco and 90 million dollars worth of underwhelming action scenes you've already seen (assuming you've been to one of these overblown summer blockbusters before).
Of course, no one really expects anything to happen in the first film in a blockbuster franchise these days; they only expect—should you sheep spend your hard-earned cash on all this overblown nonsense in great numbers like you usually do—that a big opening weekend will set the ball rolling for a $90 million follow-up. Then there will be another and another and a few more after that. Only when the direct-to-brainstem seventh installment, Fall of the Lair of the Planet of the Apes, fails to make a splash will the folks at 20th Century Fox decide its time to reboot the franchise again.
This is a longstanding tradition in American cinema. And the original Planet of the Apes film franchise—five movies in five years, each a cheaper and less profitable endeavor than the one that came before—pretty much wrote the book on how to tease out the attention of the moviegoing public. But then those films struck a chord for a host of reasons: They built an immersive world with a mythology all its own (taking plenty of liberties from Pierre Boulle's sci-fi novel because they didn't have the budget to recreate his fantastical world); they showed audiences something they'd never seen before with elaborate makeup and special effects; and they tried—in their own clunky way—to say something about the world outside the theater.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes does none of these things with any conviction. Instead of a bold new world, we get the sunny suburbs of a postcard-perfect San Francisco, with a slack-jawed and entirely miscast James Franco—playing a self-absorbed super-scientist named Will Rodman—as our guide. The movie spoon-feeds us heap after generous heap of banal, pseudo-scientific backstory (Franco, at random intervals, even contributes entirely unnecessary and dry narration) before leading us to a semi-climactic ape revolt on the stupid fucking Golden Gate bridge. The movie's events take place over the span of eight years—though neither Franco nor his girlfriend (the quite pretty and seldom speaking Freida Pinto) seem to do any aging—with most of the apes transforming from uncivilized beasts to a sophisticated Tom Clancy-style tactical assault force literally overnight. (The original Apes film has a timeline that stretches about 2,000 years longer.)
Despite the sizable budget, Rise's chimpanzees still look awkward and Disney-esque most of the time. The effects team fares much better with its orangutans and gorillas (one particularly ornery gorilla named Buck gives the film's best performance, seeing as how John Lithgow pretty much reprises his role as a confused alien in a human body to play Franco's Alzheimer's-stricken pops). But then uninspiring character design is going to be a problem with a Planet of the Apes set in the now, starring quasi-realistic apes and completely lacking in style. Even the 2001 reboot—directed by Tim Burton, let's not forget—had a look of its own, where this is a bunch of stupid CGI apes running around, something one can find in any number of Brendan Frasier/Kevin James animal talkies. Only in its quietest moments does Apes display some stylistic flair: Two subtitled sign language interactions between main-ape Caesar and an aged circus orangutan are among the film's most compelling moments, mostly because they deliver some much-needed silence.
But Rise leaves its audience absolutely nothing to think about except a sequel. It would take a stoned philosophy major to squeeze any meaning out of this thing, and that's a shame, because on paper, a mainstream film that asks its audience to root for escaped research animals is pretty transgressive. But save for Franco's one-line apology to Caesar at the end of the film, the ethics of animal testing goes rather untested in the movie, and there's certainly no room for metaphor or thoughtful symbolism or big questions in a movie packed with one-dimensional good vs. evil types. I've seen episodes of Lassie that made me ponder the human-animal relationship more than Rise did, and in fact this whole shit-show reminded more of Homeward Bound than it did of the 1968 Apes film that started it all.
The only conceivable purpose Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves is to lay the groundwork for a franchise that, despite a near-unwatchable first episode, has nowhere to go but up. And maybe that's all anybody wants from an Apes reboot: A really expensive, two-hour version of a television pilot. It doesn't matter that no one in this movie can act, because humans are replaceable and CGI apes are immortal. It doesn't matter that the movie says nothing, because all it needs to say is "stay tuned." This is a nothing film: an extended trailer for the next film two summers from now.
I have trouble with this. I don't expect to leave a Hollywood blockbuster better for the two hours I've spent in the dark, but I do expect it to say something: If not something original than at least something of the moment. And I have to beat my head against the wall to understand why test-audiences didn't feel that way at all. Maybe America needs a good distraction. Maybe most of my generation never grew up. Maybe those of us raised on ham-fisted morality lessons from Saturday morning cartoons don't think our own kids need any lessons, just explosions. And maybe, just maybe, this movie will be the epic flop it deserves to be—because we're not the unimaginative, aesthetically handicapped nerds that 20th Century Fox thinks we are. Maybe we'll demand better.
Or maybe I'll just see you at the sequel.
SEE IT: Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened Friday at various multiplexes.