James Franco looks more bored and distracted in Rise of the Planet of the Apes than he did when he was hosting the Oscars: Watching the movie, I kept waiting for him to pull out his iPhone, aim it at the camera and take a snapshot while mugging sheepishly. Has there ever been a film with a less engaged protagonist? Claude Rains made more of an impact in 1933’s The Invisible Man, and you couldn’t even see him. In Apes, the vibrant and charismatic Franco, who carried the whole of 127 Hours practically by himself, has the look of someone fulfilling a contract — the look of someone who realizes what he’s gotten into and just wants to get it over with.
That’s the same effect Rise of the Planet of the Apes has on the viewer. You can’t wait for the film to get past its endless set-up and exposition and get to the fun stuff. But the wait is long. This prequel to the 1968 sci-fi classic explains exactly how Earth came to be overrun by hyper-intelligent apes while the human population died out. The idea is genius — what a creative way to relaunch a dormant franchise! — but the execution is something else entirely. Director Rupert Wyatt, working from a script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, have made a movie meant more for audiences of monkeys than people. How else to explain the utter lack of interesting characters save for Caesar (played by Andy Serkis, using the same CGI technology that transformed him into Gollum in The Lord of the Rings), the chimp injected with an experimental drug that gives him the intelligence of a human, including the ability to speak?
Franco, as scientist Will Rodman, is conducting trial experiments on the apes in his pharmaceutical company’s test-subject zoo in hopes of finding a cure for his father (John Lithgow), who is stricken with Alzheimer’s. But after drug tests on the primary subject Caesar fail, the chimp is targeted for termination. Instead, Will sneaks him home and raises him as a pet, where the animal soon starts to exhibit decidedly human-like behavior.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is filled with irritating clichés, such as the men assigned to care for the apes who abuse and taunt the animals for sadistic fun (they’re like prison guards in an exploitation movie). That mistreatment is supposed to justify why the apes eventually rise against us, but the story would have been more interesting if the apes, once the drugs started taking effect, simply decided to wage war on mankind because they deemed themselves superior (arrogance is just as human a trait as a lust for revenge). The special effects in the movie, the work of Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital and the same motion-capture technology James Cameron used in Avatar, is remarkable — you’ve never seen more life-like fake chimps — but most of it is wasted as the beasts lollygag in their menagerie, looking photo-realistic while doing absolutely nothing.
When they finally decide to break out, Rise of the Planet of the Apes jolts to life, with a sensational battle sequence atop the Golden Gate Bridge. Unfortunately, you have to sit through an hour and 20 minutes’ worth of movie before something cool happens, and after a much-too-short setpiece of admittedly rousing action (including the awesome sight of a giant gorilla tackling a military helicopter), the end credits roll.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes could have done without the romance between Will and his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto), arguably the most irrelevant romantic subplot in cinematic history, or scenes involving highly-skilled professionals who bicker like schoolchildren (no wonder the apes kick our asses), or a needlessly drawn-out middle section detailing the animals’ gradual evolution. The movie’s pacing is all off: Wyatt dotes on needless plot points other filmmakers would skip. There’s no momentum to the film, no sense of a build-up to an all-out war. Rise of the Planet of the Apes throws out references to previous Apes films to amuse hardcore fans, and the film delivers on its promise to reveal exactly how this doomsday scenario could happen. But rarely has a story about the end of the world seemed so boring.
Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Andy Serkis.
Director: Rupert Wyatt.
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver.
Producers: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Peter Chernin.
A 20th Century Fox release. Running time: 100 minutes. Brief vulgar language, violence, monkey mayhem. Opens Friday Aug. 5 at area theaters.