Apes have always made lousy movie stars. They never have front-page affairs with other celebrity animals; there’s no Most Emotional Grunt category at the Academy Awards; and teenage girls don’t lie in bed at night, dreaming of one day meeting the Right Orangutan. That’s why, if you going to make a summer blockbuster named Rise of the Planet of the Apes, with a primate in the starring role, you’d better cast a pretty damn good human foil: an actor of such prodigious handsomeness and talent, the audience will forget it has paid good money to spend two hours in the company of hominoids.
Sadly, 20th Century Fox had to make do with James Franco — an actor whose empty grinning as the joint host of February’s Oscars ceremony was so unwatchable that some thought it might have been ‘performance art’. On the upside, Franco isn’t always a dud (see Milk, 2008) and he offsets his co-stars’ lack of sartorial flair — ape fur doesn’t go with anything — by making every scene look like a Gap catalogue.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, of course, the latest of many Planet of the Apes spin-offs (the last one being Tim Burton’s effort in 2001), all based loosely on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 science fiction novel of the same name, which was set in a troubling world where humans are hunted for sport by apes who wear Barbour jackets and drive Range Rovers (or something like that). This particular version is a bit different: it’s an ‘origins story’ — a term now frequently deployed by studio marketing departments when trying to make an obvious franchise cash-in sound more imaginative.
Franco plays a young scientist, Will Rodman, who is testing an Alzheimer’s drug known as AZ-112 on a lab full of caged primates somewhere in the vicinity of San Francisco. The first sign of trouble comes when the programme is shut down by an executive with a preposterous English accent, forcing Rodman to take a baby chimp named Caesar home with him. It soon turns out that Caesar is abnormally intelligent (a side-effect of his mother’s treatment with AZ-112) and must therefore be raised as a human boy — until the neighbours have him seized by a cruel young wrangler from Animal Control.
It’s a rich premise, but Caesar’s upbringing — and Rodman’s realisation of the potential of AZ-112 — is raced through at such speed that there’s little time to savour the details, or indeed suspend disbelief. When Rodman tweaks the drug and cures his own father’s Alzheimer’s, for example, it’s dealt with almost casually (Oh, look, dad is better!). Similarly implausible is the scene when Rodman’s obstructive, hyper-cautious boss — he of the silly accent — suddenly reverses course and goes all-in on the revised formula, even though a) it has mutated into virus form, making it contagious, and b) the ape test-subjects are developing triple-digit IQs. He never thinks what might happen if, say, these genius apes decide to rise up and reclaim Earth for themselves.
So we’re left with a film that feels unsatisfying on many levels. Which means an awful lot — if not everything — rests on the impressiveness of the apes. Now, this might have been a reasonable proposition back in 1968 (the date of the Charlton Heston original), when some old thesp in a furry mask on horseback could suck the breath out of a cinemagoer, but things have moved on a little since then: aliens have blown up the White House; mercenaries have colonised a 3-D jungle planet full of blue-breasted women; and there has, of course, been a incident involving snakes, on a plane.
But, my God, the apes are terrific.
Created using the movements and facial expressions of blue screen heroes such as Andy Serkis (best known for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), they are surely as good as this technology is ever going to get before an actual, living, breathing gibbon is implanted into your frontal lobe by some kind of laser emitted from the multiplex screen. In fact, Caesar is so good that fathers will see their own sons in him. And that is a terrible thing, for Caesar is regarded by everyone but Rodman as a sub-human.
If only the rest of Rise of the Planet of the Apes could live up to this epic, central pathos. Instead, by the third act, the writers have run out of ideas entirely, with the apes having nothing in particular to do but smash things up, while Franco runs after them calling Caesar’s name. Still, it hangs together well enough for August popcorn fare. And at least it breaks one rule of Hollywood: in this case, the apes are undoubtedly the stars.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated August 13, 2011