DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Monday, 8 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) dir. Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine and David Hewlett


By Greg Klymkiw

I have absolutely no knee-jerk prejudice against remakes, reboots, sequels or prequels as the number of good and/or even great ones is impressive. I do, however, have a problem with bad and/or mediocre and/or (worst of all) unnecessary movies - whatever they may be.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - save for the millions of dollars it will bamboozle out of moviegoers in its first week - has no real reason to exist.

The movie is about NOTHING.

It is rife with long, dull scenes that go nowhere.

The screenplay, such as it is, has not (I suspect) actually been written, but assembled with alphabet blocks by chimpanzees - not very bright ones at that. The chimps deserving the blame for their less than stellar work are Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver whose credits include - ahem - The Relic (a watchable monster movie), An Eye for An Eye (a watchable vigilante movie) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (a watchable thriller). The accent here is clearly on "watchable" - an achievement not quite attained by Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Not only have these two simians delivered an inconsequential plot that's about nothing, but they've populated the landscape with the dullest roles imaginable. Oh, and if anyone thinks I'm merely picking on the writers - I am. They're also the producers of this thing.

Bottom line: This movie is not worthy of the Original Five. It'd be a tough act to follow. In contrast to the work generated by the writers (and I reiterate - producers) of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the collective writing talents behind the five original Planet of the Apes movies wrote screenplays for the likes of Frank Capra, George Stevens, David Lean, Martin Ritt, William Wyler, Sidney Lumet, Franco Zeffirelli, John Frankenheimer, Roger Corman and Martin Scorsese.

This alone should be enough to rest my case.

But I won't. Let the flagellation of Rise of the Planet of the Apes continue.

What a cast has been assembled to render this monkey house of purported characters.

Leading man James (127 Days) Franco sleepwalks through his part as a chemical manufacturing scientist who creates a drug meant to cure Alzheimer's that instead kills humans whilst creating a new super species of ape.

John Lithgow goes through the motions of delivering a professional by-the numbers performance as Franco's addled Dad who is briefly revived by Sonny-Jim's chemical discovery before he plunges into further madness and finally death.

Frieda Pinto parades her vacuous beauty about whilst exuding intellect as blank as an unformatted floppy disk in the role of Franco's zoo veterinarian girlfriend - a real stretch unless one believes veterinary colleges are in the business of graduating animal doctors with less intelligence than their patients.

Delivering exceptional work in spite of nothing resembling writing employed in the creation of his role as an animal shelter administrator, Brian Cox, one of the world's greatest living actors, might have actually benefited if something as unimaginative as a recognizable archetype might have been devised to allow for some virtuoso scenery-chewing.

Playing the least compelling corporate villain ever committed to celluloid, the non-entity that is David Oyewolo is so bland that not even good writing would have saved him as a pharmaceutical company baddie who - wait for it - is more interested in profits than science.

Then there are stellar supporting performances from actors playing scum-buckets so well that one wishes they either had a better movie to be in (like Tom Felton as the vile animal shelter attendant) or David Hewlett as Franco's nasty next door neighbour who hates monkeys and berates old men with Alzheimer's. He really should have been cast as the central corporate baddie instead of the aforementioned bland loser they DID cast.

And Lest We Forget - Andy Serkis, the somewhat overrated CGI body double who previously and famously aped (as it were) the character of Gollum in Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. Here he gets to play Franco's pet chimp Caesar who is more intelligent than Albert Einstein and leads a grand monkey revolt. Don't get me wrong, Serkis IS a good actor, but what he delivered for Jackson finally works as well as it does because the writing is great and the CGI is stunning. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the non-writing, ho-hum direction and obvious CGI gives us so little to root for that the gymnastics of Serkis's apery is all for naught.

While a solid, simple plot can have considerable merit in providing a perfectly manufactured coat hanger to adorn with cool shit, this pathetic new sequel/prequel/remake/reboot or whatever the fuck it's supposed to be is so lacklustre that I struggled in vain whilst waiting for something - ANYTHING - of any consequence to happen.

It didn't.

In a nutshell, here's the plot - or rather, grocery list:

Scientist discovers miracle drug to cure Alzheimer's.

Said drug turns chimp into Super Chimp.

Alas, same drug kills scientist's Dad.

Scientist raises chimp as own child.

Girlfriend pops in and out of movie to smile stupidly.

Chimp gets into all manner of shenanigans.

Chimp bites finger off next door neighbour.

Chimp is incarcerated in animal shelter full of apes.

Chimp leads ape revolt on San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge.

Chimp leads apes to freedom amongst ancient Redwood trees.

Next door neighbour - afflicted with deadly virus - casually goes to work as airline pilot, finger miraculously intact.

Spreads virus worldwide.

What, I ask you, is this movie actually ABOUT?

The original 1968 Arthur P. Jacobs production of Planet of the Apes was dazzlingly directed by the great Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton), superbly adapted by Michael (Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia) Wilson and Rod (The Twilight Zone) Serling from Pierre Boulle's brilliant novel "La planète des singes" and featuring a stellar cast that attacked their roles with relish.

And what roles they were! The makers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes might have thought to take their cues from the original source for the necessary inspiration. In addition to having a great square-jawed hero in the form of the cynical, no-nonsense astronaut Taylor (Charlton "GOD" Heston) the original movie boasted a terrific array of colourful supporting characters that great actors like Roddy McDowell, Kim Hunter and Maurice Evans played to the hilt. The only thing the Rise team might have been influenced by was the role of Nova in the original, a staggeringly beautiful, but equally blank leading lady. Smartly, this character in the original was mute whereas this awful new reboot chooses to allow Freida Pinto to open her mouth - thus forcing the already leaden lines she's been given to thud to the floor with greater force than a body hitting the pavement from the top of the Eiffel Tower.

Planet of the Apes was, still is and always will be a great picture. (Let's forget, however, that the moronic Tim Burton remake even exists. Though dreadful as it is, it's fucking Rembrandt compared to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

The first time I saw Schaffner's Planet of the Apes was as a nine-year-old lad, sitting in the front row of Winnipeg's long-shuttered picture palace the Metropolitan Theatre (where Guy Maddin eventually shot Isabella Rossellini in the stunning My Dad is 100 Years Old). It was the first time I got gooseflesh in a movie. So profound was my experience that it was, indeed, the movie that compelled/condemned me to a life of servitude under the pleasurable shackles of motion pictures.

I have seen the picture well over 100 times since and most recently, watched it with my 10-year-old daughter during an Ape marathon prior to seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I was, in fact, really excited to see the new picture which, I suppose adds profoundly to my disappointment.

Schaffner's picture is a genuine classic. It holds up as powerfully as any great piece of superbly executed populist cinema should. Mysterious, thrilling, funny, intelligent, propulsive in all the right ways and a movie replete with thought-provoking thematic elements about religious fanaticism suppressing science and new ideas, the topsy-turvy look at humans fulfilling the role of "dumb beast", notions of time and time travel and the devastating effects of war, it's a picture that has not dated.

I always have maintained that its cinematic storytelling techniques are so classical and finely wrought and its technical virtuosity so ahead of its time that the movie could be released virtually untouched and I suspect it could/would be as big a hit NOW as it once was. Most tellingly to me was just how compelling the movie was for my little girl. She remained stapled into the chesterfield, her eyes transfixed upon my hi-def monitor and nary one bathroom break. The discussion we had about the movie afterwards centred on the IDEAS as much as it did about the story and how entertaining it was.

No similar discussion occurred after watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Because, frankly, it's really about NOTHING. The stakes for the characters in the original film were always tied to the issues it explored, whereas the stakes for all the characters in Rise are rooted in not much of anything - save for James Franco's selfish, whiny and somewhat unconvincing need to prove that his new drug will work.

As a kid in the years between 1968 and 1970 when the first sequel Beneath the Planet of the Apes finally appeared, one of the things that haunted me - nay, OBSESSED me! - was a lingering question I had at the devastating ending to the first film. When Chuck Jesus H. Christ Heston rides deeper into the "Forbidden Zone" and discovers (thanks to the writing genius that was Rod Serling for coming up specifically with the ending) that he is NOT on another planet, but a nuclear-war-devastated Earth in the future, I was chomping at the bit to learn what our astronaut would find in the wasteland AFTER he discovers a half-buried Statue of Liberty in the sand.

What Heston finally discovered (along with James Franciscus, a new astronaut who follows a rescue-mission trajectory to the monkey planet) was a crumbling Manhattan beneath the desert populated by Doomsday-Bomb-worshipping mutants with telepathic powers who were about to be attacked by an army of war-thirsty gorillas.

Jesus Christ Almighty, indeed!

Just the plot alone as penned by veteran screenwriter Paul (Goldfinger, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Murder on the Orient Express) Dehn was original enough to keep one riveted. More than the plot, though, was that - AGAIN - the movie was actually ABOUT something.

Even though the picture is a tad perfunctorily directed by stalwart hack Ted (Hang 'em High, Magnum Force and the genuinely wonderful Go Tell The Spartans) Post, Dehn's superb screenplay challenged us with notions of blind militaristic rage (including a peace march as reflective of the Vietnam War, which could have - in parallel contrast - provided a backdrop to the new picture with respect to America's idiotic "War on Terror"), religious fundamentalism justifying war (from both the apes AND the humans) and most terrifyingly, the whole notion of peace through superior firepower.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes has no such ideas. Though it's set in contemporary times and could have explored terrorism, blind militarism, rising fascism/fundamentalism, the financial crisis, the oil crisis - any manner of issues facing the world today, it chooses Instead, to focus upon the corruption inherent in pharmaceutical companies, Alzheimer's disease and cruelty to animals. These issues are not without merit, but they're just there to serve the non-plot, almost as a necessary evil to be touched upon and dropped quickly in favour of dazzling CGI.

Escape from the Planet of the Apes appeared a year after Beneath the Planet of the Apes and even at the tender age of 12 I remember thinking, "What is this shit? A sequel? They blew up the fucking Earth!" (I had a salty tongue even back then.) When I saw the picture - as a kid and even now after umpteen viewings - I was dazzled.

The real star is again screenwriter Paul Dehn as opposed to actor-turned-competent director Don Taylor who, in fairness, DID direct a fine’ 70s version of The Island of Dr. Moreau with Burt Lancaster and the cult sci-fi classic The Final Countdown. But what a GREAT script! What first-rate sci-fi!!!

From a plot standpoint, Dehn delivered a perfectly plausible twist via a new character called Dr. Milo who, like Cornelius and Zira, was an ape scientist who defied the "law" of fundamentalism, resurrected and repaired Chuck Heston's spaceship and then all three simians of science followed a backwards trajectory just before the Earth is destroyed and wind up BACK in time. This was also a clearly fascinating way to utilize the notions of time and space and, in its own way, delve into quantum physics and the early postulations of parallel universe theory.

This third official Apes sequel delivered up clever satirical goods, explored issues of women's' rights (plus animal rights - far more effectively than Rise), immoral interrogation techniques and most importantly studied the world of fanaticism/militarism within higher levels of government bureaucracy and how THIS is where the true power often lies and where sick, corrupt values run rampant.

What it does here so magnificently is how it offers up a great villain in the form of a German-born scientist/political advisor (a la Henry Kissinger) played by the wonderful actor Eric Braeden (who had a hugely successful career as a soap opera TV star, but most notably appeared in the great ‘70s sci-fi thriller Collosus: The Forbin Project from screenwriter James Bridges and the underrated director Joseph Sargent). Braeden is such a nasty, vicious, homicidal government bureaucrat and his great performance and superb characterization thanks to Dehn's writing puts the lacklustre aforementioned villain in Rise to complete and utter shame.

Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, is as sharp a sequel as the third instalment - replete with great writing from Paul Dehn and the added bonus of thrilling direction from J. Lee Thompson, the man who gave us the brilliant, original, utterly chilling Cape Fear as well as some of the greatest action epics of all time like North West Frontier, Taras Bulba and The Guns of Navarone. This particular sequel tells us about the rise of Caesar, the ape child of Cornelius and Zira who leads the simians in revolt against their human oppressors.

Conquest is the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes most closely resembles, yet pales most mightily against. Conquest deals head on with the issue that plagued (and continues to plague) America most doggedly - that of slavery and, includes good dashes of America's susceptibility to right wing government rule. A thoroughly effective repellent performance from Don Murray as the fascist California governor racing to eventually become President of the United States (he and his minions always wear black-coloured uniforms hearkening to both Nazism and Italian Fascism) is so politically charged - not just for its time, but like all great classics, resonates in a contemporary context.

Rise has no such villain and virtually NO political context. I'll not speak too much about Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the fifth official sequel and perhaps the weakest entry in the series, but even still, in its exploration of the early beginnings of the fundamentalism that eventually grips even the apes, it makes the new film look so puny in comparison.

Rupert Wyatt is a dreadful director. The pace of Rise is herky-jerky and the final action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge - which should be spectacular - is yet another madly constructed action scene from a director who couldn't helm action to save his life.

The worst element of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in its over-reliance upon CGI. The effects are relatively effective, but they're not there to serve the story, but to merely serve themselves. The stunning makeup effects for the apes designed by John Chambers in the ‘60s blow ALL the CGI totally away. The makeup allows great actors - throughout the original Apes series to actually deliver real performances and, thanks to terrific writing, inject considerable life into the proceedings.

Rise from the Planet of the Apes is, in contrast, moviemaking at its most dreadful - bereft of ideas, good writing and direction from someone who has a vision and/or the virtuosity to create popular cinema of the highest order.

Perhaps the most disgusting thing about the new film is that it fails to acknowledge the author of the original novel and the screenwriters (primarily Paul Dehn and Serling) of the original series in the head credits.

This is ultimately a disgrace.

Do yourself a favour and either skip Rise of the Planet of the Apes or, if you feel you must see the picture at all, try to watch the original films first.

You'll see the difference!


Alan Bacchus said...

Greggy, I couldn't help posting my Apes review today, after glances at the lambasting you did. After writing mine, I read yours. You are certainly free to hate a film, but the extremity in this case, i think, counteracts your opening statement that you don't have a knee-jerk reaction to sequels or reboots. Clearly your guard was up on this one.

Greg Klymkiw said...

My guard was not up at all. I clearly stated that I was, in fact, rather looking forward to the movie. As well, many of the sequels and remakes I like or even love are often from good or great movies and as such, I do expect they will meet or exceed said films. If not, there's little point to making them.

Alan Bacchus said...

I guess that's where we disagree. I don't think sequels need to better or even meet the original. For me if they do it's a pleasant surprise.
But the extremity of your opinion in this case I was quite surprised by.

Greg Klymkiw said...

In what sense is it extreme? I've certainly gone out of my way to back up my charges of incompetence against the makers of this movie. Also, given how bad Tim Burton's remake was (a real shocker to me, especially since I love Tim Burton) - I'd have expected anyone daring to tackle this franchise might have aspired to greatness. These clowns aspired to the lowest common denominator and managed to fail even on that level. And why NOT expect more from a sequel, remake or reboot? There are so many examples of where it works beautifully. For example, much as I love the 50s The Thing, John Carpenter's remake is genuinely great. I don't know anything about the new version (as you know, I try to remain ignorant until I see a movie), but knowing one is coming, I'm looking forward to it. I will, however, expect it to be as good if not better than the previous two versions. If it isn't I will dump on it. Fairly, of course. I'm always very moderate.

Eshwin said...

I, too, love the originals. Just like a good episode of the original Trek, the original Planet of the Apes films remind me what Sci-Fi could have grown into had Star Wars never existed. That said, I enjoyed the new film immensely. To me it wasn't really about anything, nor did it have to be, nor did it compare to the thought and depth of the original five (though I still think Battle was pointless). What it did do, and do well, was present a very believable situation of powerless animals suffering at the hands of one-dimensionally evil humans (which is fine by be, as most people are more one dimensionally evil than anyone writing films these days realizes), and then, through the magic of sci-fi, watch as those animals became empowered and wage a beast vs. human war. In a way, and I can only speak for myself, it gave voice to those of us that loves animals more than people, and then allowed us to watch the said animals overcome in novel and amusing ways. You have no idea how long I've waited to see animals, or nature itself, rise up against the arrogant, one dimensionally evil, vain, petty, remorseless, selfish douchebags I share this human society with. No idea. The turn of Ceasar into a rebel wasn't half bad either. (you felt nothing when the first ape rose up and spoke the first "NO!" to a human? C'mon, that was freaking awesome!) To compare Tim Burton's film to this one, nay, to even suggest that this is somehow worse, is madness. No, it's not the original five, but it's a fine bit more entertaining, at least, than that patchworked shot-entirely-on-a-backlot-with-bad-matte-paintings mess.

Royal Saucers said...

If I were the man with the power, this ape reboot would have been charged with megatons of controversial political/social commentary in an action packed package.

I'd set it in war torn Africa and put the apes in their natural environment to start. Poachers and Islamic Supremacists running wild. I'd make it a statement about how man has stalled himself and is basically on a circular de-evolutionary path with religious fundamentalist wars and oppression, further de-civilized by Western mega-corporations and the American Military Industrial Complex getting embroiled in unfix-able/unwinnable situations and fucking everything up even further. And corruption and political correctness both shutting everybody up.

In short, mankind has blew it, and now a new species is going to leapfrog past them -- coming straight out of the jungle/plains just like man did, way back when. And they're super smart and yet really driven by the concept "monkey see, monkey do". Suicide bombings, genocide, you name it, all jumped up times ten. All the inhumanity man displays turned back at him times ten. No moral code whatsoever -- just like nature.

Never get made in corporate Hollywood, a film like that. But your review has likely inspired more thinking than the film you've reviewed ever will. Thanks.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Well Eshwin, I can't say I agree that most of mankind is "one dimensionally evil" - society maybe, but that's because its been manipulated by a small number of power brokers. While, I could never wholly defend Tim Burton's remake as the screenplay is easily as bad as the "Rise" script, but visually, it was a treat. The matte work, etc. was gorgeous and Burton was obviously engaging in his obsession with cool, arcane styles. The clown who directed "Rise" has neither visual talent, nor does he know how to direct an action scene to save his life. I'm not sure why you have a penchant for seeing animals turn against human, but I'm surprised this is your first helping of an animals get back at humans movie. The 70s in particular was full of them. Caesar saying "No" is merely a pathetic nod and topsy turvy replay of Heston's big moment in POA.

Greg Klymkiw said...

Thanks for the kind words Royal Saucers. I love your idea about setting it war-town Africa, etc. THAT would have been a GREAT movie!!!