When blockbuster films deal with conflict that poses a global threat, the question hangs over them: why is humanity worth saving? It’s the drug-film conundrum: 95 minutes of injections and hard-living make a stronger impression than the therapy and lessons of the remaining 10. Why bother presenting a human population worthy of life, love and discovery when the audience and filmmakers can take more pleasure in annihilating them?
The “Planet of the Apes” saga, which is revived in this Friday’s prequel “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” has managed to sidestep this issue by presenting a series of films where humans are clearly doomed. The shocker twist in the original film, which has since informed the following entries, was that apes didn’t seize the Earth, but merely inherited it from a self-destructive, warring species destined to fall on their sword. The very phrase “Planet of the Apes” has remained part of the titles for each film as a warning: its own realization as a concept was an inevitability. The question isn’t can humanity be saved, but rather, how won’t they find salvation, and will they screw the apes in their desire to vainly remain on top of the food chain?
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which zips along at the speed of a Sunday matinee, quickly introduces us to Caesar, the offspring of an unnaturally-intelligent ape advanced by a compound serum created to re-grow brain functions. James Franco is Will Rodman, the beleaguered, kind-hearted scientist who sees his failures nearly sink the company, only to adopt and raise Caesar on his own away from lab coats and syringes. Rodman watches this simian first develop ropey, seemingly computer-generated agility, but before long, he’s leapfrogged all sensible ape behavior and can now play chess. When Rodman meets a cute girl, the ape not only communicates with him through sign language, but suggests the two go out to dinner. The fact that this ape is already fully understanding of traditional date behavior seems like a small scientific miracle on its own: many humans haven’t even gotten that far.
Years pass as Rodman continues to hide Caesar’s notable evolution from society, further testing his miracle drug by using his father, Charles (John Lithgow), as a guinea pig. Thanks to stolen samples, Charles not only has been able to combat his Alzheimer’s, but has become much sharper and coherent than ever before. We never exactly know what Rodman is or isn’t doing over at the labs, but he is slowly starting to build the drug further in order to pitch it to the money-hungry higher-ups. It's worth noting that Lithgow brings substantial warmth to an extremely underwritten character.
Unfortunately, increased self-awareness leads to increased discontent for Caesar. He’s beginning to wonder exactly who he is, who was his creator. Rodman’s insistence on isolating him from other chimps seems like the sort of rookie mistake a highly-paid scientist would not make, though it should be clear that Rodman has not been written as the sharpest tool in the shed. Once Caesar snaps (in a notably brutal moment against an ornery, put-upon neighbor), he is whisked away no-questions-asked to an ape “preserve” run by an unreasonably malicious father-and-son team played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton. In case Patrick Doyle’s bombastic score didn’t tip you off, these are two of the film’s many villains.
Finally in the presence of his kind, we see Caesar work his way up the chain of ape command. The computer animation in this picture (any practical ape-work is minimal) varies in quality, but the apes themselves never seem like fully concrete creations. The lack of emphasis on proper color shading and background matte work is compensated for with startlingly intuitive facial animation. Caesar is played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis, and there are moments where his collaboration with the animators yields spectacular rewards. We see his wonderfully human eyes frightened, curious and eventually angry, particularly as the narrative shifts away from the superfluous Rodman and to Caesar’s realization about his destiny. His first moments in the ape yard when he assumes they are as civilized as him results in a brutal lesson learned, his face registering confusion, fear and anger in equal doses.
Were this film simply a mostly-animated picture about an ape’s self-discovery and caged-in dealings with other chimps, it would be one of the season’s more enthralling entertainments. Unfortunately, the needs of a summer blockbuster outweigh the luxury of nuance. Caesar uses improbable, convenient methods to arrange a primate prison break, and soon downtown San Francisco is besieged by a phalanx of impossibly-smart apes. It’s hard to tell how much of this film is due to relatively green director Rupert Wyatt and how much of it emerges from the sausage-making Fox Blockbuster Factory. Scenes are edited to such a lean, perfunctory degree that it almost feels as if the story is happening in fast-forward. You wonder if we’re already in danger of running into Charlton Heston at some point.
This leads to a bizarre, action-packed final act that seems to have no narrative purpose except to establish that these apes have morphed into super-ninjas. The Golden Gate Bridge is the end-game, though it’s never explained what sort of tactical target the bridge represents, nor is it clear how the police aren’t able to navigate the area well enough to open fire. The film certainly moves at an energetic clip, and the animated ape mayhem is impressive, though it doesn’t seem to make the case that there is an evolutionary link between these apes and the creatures that inhabit the earlier films. Moreover, much of the animal behavior doesn’t even seem rooted from nature -- there are moments where it feels as if the minds behind “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” haven’t even studied reasonable ape behavior. Scenes with Caesar himself, especially clothed, make the leader of the pack seem more like a hunched-over, mutated human.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” fails to add new wrinkles to the 'Apes' series, instead framing Caesar’s intellectual and philosophical coming-of-age as a digression between noisy action scenes. But as a standalone science fiction action picture, 'Apes' features a number of sequences that whiz and hum with a slick sense of economy, framing the apes as a serious threat to their human counterparts despite looking like effects that never share the frame. Not entirely committed to its numb-nuts “science = doom” subtext, 'Apes' simply becomes a straightforward anti-human creed reminding us to not upset an unspoken code of conduct with the animal kingdom. Thanks for the warning. [C+]