In what should be a heartwretching moment, Caesar (Andy Serkis) cradles a dying simian in his arms as he takes his final breath. The motion-capture technology that James Cameron used to wow audiences with in Avatar picks up all the subtle nuances and emotions of his face while allowing the character to have fluid, natural movement. But, instead of doing something daring in this parable of racial injustice, we’re given cliché moments to demonstrate how far WETA has come with their tech. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is pretty as all get out and the climax involves some great, silly fun, but director Rupert Wyatt seems more concerned with showing off his shiny toys than doing something remarkable with them.
It’s true that Rise is unique in the sense that it uses mo-cap to tell its story from an animal’s point of view. When Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s script focuses on Caesar’s change of demeanor and eventual rise to intellectual ruler of his brethren, its storytelling hook is different enough to distract you from how generic chunks of the plot are.
Everything involving James Franco’s Will Rodman, though, is completely unengaging. While pitching a new Alzheimer’s wonder drug to GenSys executives, his test subject goes postal and begins assaulting every worker in sight, eliminating his chances for further funding and human testing. The company is insistent on putting all the chimps down and starting over again, so Rodman takes home a baby which his Alzheimer’s afflicted father (John Lithgow) names Caesar. The little chimp picks up on things rather quickly and, as it turns out, his mother passed down the drug’s effect to him and, since he didn’t have memory loss, it made him smarter.
Serkis’ first great moment is the look of concern he gives as he realizes that the drug is wearing off on Will’s dad and he’s actually regressing to a lower state of cognitive brain functioning than he had before. It’s from then on that the film changes to his perception of the world and how human nature angers him. Although he enjoys being with his human family, he’s concerned with whether or not others perceive him as a pet and acknowledge that he’s not normal. Once he’s court ordered to live in a sanctuary, his reintegration into simian society has some compelling moments, including the mistreatment of his species by the wardens, played with appropriate sinisterness by Brian Cox and Tom Felton, which marks the first time the actor has sneered and not uttered “Potter” under his breath.
There are a lot of missed opportunities with the material, including some dealing with the interactions between Caesar and his human family unit. Raised by the Rodmans and used to a familiar routine, the film neglects to explore his reaction to Caroline Aranha (Frieda Pinto) moving in. There’s a hint of jealousy in a scene or two, but it’s left untapped. I’m all for keeping a pretty face around but, like a lot of the human characters, her role isn’t meaty enough to have a point to it. The tone of the film also seems compromised, as there’s plenty of opportunity for the material to veer into better and darker territory given the source material but it stays subdued. There’s barely a risk taken by the director or writers; everything happens exactly as you called it five minutes earlier.
Some fun nods to past series’ entries aside, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a movie that uses technology instead of telling a story. The original is part of Fox’s legacy of timeless films – co-written by the master of the twist ending, Rod Serling – and they already screwed up once with Tim Burton’s gorgeous but completely forgettable remake, so it’s unfortunate that the reboot makes the same mistake. The Outbreak meets Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes plot moves along at a snail’s pace when there aren’t a ton of monkeys running around breaking stuff and once Wyatt finally gets around to the good stuff, it’s not enough to justify sitting through the first two acts.