Friday, August 26, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Movie Review: You Blew It Up! Damn You to Hell!

For the life of me I can’t understand why critics have been heaping praise on Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Are our standards and expectations for big-budget studio productions so low that as long as it’s not a documentary about idiots falling down we think it’s good? Have we come this far and sunk so low? Really, I don’t see what there is to appreciate in this sub-par CGI-enhanced non-spectacle that completely fails to grasp any of the subtlety or even the humor of Planet of the Apes.

Maybe that’s not entirely fair because this isn’t meant as a remake of the original 1968 classic. If anything it’s a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, being an origins story, explaining how apes become the dominant species on the planet. So this is what you’d call a franchise re-boot. Tim Burton already tried the remake which turned out disastrous. So 20th Century Fox tasked Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (a writing team that hasn’t had a screenplay produced since The Relic in 1997) with drafting a screenplay that would kick start the franchise again. That’s how we wind up with a story that begins with humans playing God and ends with apes playing human.
Jaffa and Silver went the science route to explain how apes might begin to rival humans for control. Spinning a tale that is part allegory, part dire warning about the dangers of playing God, and part action spectacle, they begin in a pharmaceutical laboratory where Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a drug to cure Alzheimer’s. The drug, a virus that re-grows brain tissue, is tested on a chimpanzee who is to be presented to a group of potential investors. Something goes terribly wrong, the chimp gets away, has a major freakout and tears up the place. The baby she was carrying is secretly placed in Will’s care, who discovers that the baby carries the advanced brain traits of his mother.
So that’s the opening prologue in which we get a taste of the core rivalry between honest and righteous scientists and animal handlers and evil greedy bureaucrats. Will’s motivation in creating this drug, and his dogmatic insistence that he can get it right even after his test subject nearly kills the investors, is that his father (John Lithgow) is suffering debilitating dementia. There’s also an ape handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine), who unwillingly puts down all the apes at the behest of Jacobs (David Oyelowo), Will’s boss whose sole motivation is profit.
Will’s pet chimp, now named Caesar, grows up into an incredible specimen with self-awareness and unbelievable intellectual capability. All he lacks is speech to place him on equal footing with a human child. That is except for the fact that he’s a CGI character that lacks the texture and definition to make me feel anything for him. That’s not to say I can’t be drawn in by CGI characters. There have been countless animated films with characters more fully fleshed out, so to speak, than Caesar. But it’s not only the writing that’s the problem. It’s physical appearance of the CGI itself. But what’s the difference between Caesar (and all the other apes in the film) and the CGI characters in Shrek for example? In an entirely animated film CGI characters fit their CGI surroundings. There’s no disconnect. They don’t draw attention to themselves as animated characters like the apes here. The one thing Burton’s Apes film got right was having actors in ape suits. I bought into those characters. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes I never stopped noticing the CGI. It’s yet another example of over-indulgence and too much reliance on technology that simply cannot replicate flesh and blood characters effectively.
The apes are just the beginning. I suppose we can’t really fault director Rupert Wyatt for the overreliance on CGI in this film. Surely it was at the studio’s behest that even most of the scenery and backgrounds be rendered by computers. Shots of San Francisco’s glorious Golden Gate Bridge are obviously completely fabricated. If you stay through the credits you’ll see that the film was shot on location – in Vancouver and Hawaii. So of course the SF skyline depicted is a fake.

But these are just technical details. And Rise of the Planet of the Apes also leaves much to be desired at the fundamental level of story and writing. For one thing, everything happens at an accelerated rate of pace. By that I mean plot developments that should pan out over several months or years take approximately 45 seconds of movie time. Take for example the scene that transitions the story into the third act. Jacobs has little use for and no trust of Will. But Will comes to him and tells him a 20 second story of how he’s been treating his father with the medicine and he’s had a complete recovery, after which Jacobs decides in a moment to give the green light for a presentation. I understand the importance of economy in screenwriting, but what goes on in this film borders on the absurd.
This is also a movie that wants to make a villain of Will’s neighbor, a man who does something so wicked as defend his small daughter using a baseball bat from a full-grown chimp. We the audience are supposed to be on the side of the righteous scientist and his poor helpless ape pet. When the chimp is taken away to, get this, a primate sanctuary that houses about 50 chimps, orangutans and one gigantic gorilla, we’re meant to feel saddened at the separation. Sorry, but let’s not lose sight of the fact that the neighbor did what any reasonable father would have done and the authorities that took Caesar away are acting in the best interests of the community.
But I digress. This ridiculous sanctuary is run by John Landon (Brian Cox) who is a reasonable animal handler. However, he has a young man working for him who likes to torture the apes with fire hoses and an electric prod. This character is portrayed by Tom Felton, who may never be able to escape the stigma of playing the slimy Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter franchise. Following the conventions of horror movies, we know that he will eventually get his comeuppance, especially after he brings some friends round after hours to demonstrate his lack of compassion. Isn’t this like the characters in a slasher film tempting fate by entering the haunted house after dark? Felton doesn’t play his character much differently from his turns as Draco and he’s rather unfortunately saddled with the baggage of having to utter the most famous line from Planet of the Apes and possibly the most famous Charlton Heston line of all time. When he intones, “Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape,” it has the feel of a small child playing dress-up in his daddy’s suit. Felton just doesn’t have the heft to pull off proper delivery of the line.
That’s just one more example of how this iteration does a tremendous disservice to the original film. I could go on about the fact that when the apes make their stand they number about 100 (yeah, because there are probably that many apes to be found in the Bay Area), or the fact that an extraneous love interest for Will (Freida Pinto) is thrown in for good measure, or how they propose to explain how a medicinal treatment will have a genetic effect such that the apes’ offspring will also be highly intelligent. Although it’s not fair to criticize the sequel before it’s been made. I’ll have to wait for that one. Or not. What’s the difference?

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