A few years ago, I went to see the original Planet of the Apes (1968) at a revival theater, and I was shocked by how cheesy it now looked on the big screen. The sprawling adobe ape village came off like something out of late-’60s Disneyland — it looked just like what it was, a set — and the caves where Charlton Heston was caged might have been made of Styrofoam. But though the physical production had dated badly (apart from the ape makeup, which was still anthropomorphically cool), the film had lost none of its pop audacity, its topsy-turvy post-apocalyptic racial-allegorical pow (”You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!”). None of the four Apes sequels, of course, were nearly as good, but they still carried bits and pieces of the original’s trippy extravagance, and they were an early landmark of geek culture. (When I was 14, a friend and I watched Escape From the Planet of the Apes on TV and then spent what felt like three hours trying to make sense of its timeline.)
All of which is to say that the biggest disappointment of the halfhearted, digitally impersonal Rise of the Planet of the Apes, apart from how just-okay it is in almost every way, is that the grandeur is gone. The movie is zippier than Tim Burton’s oddly lifeless 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, but unlike good sci-fi, it doesn’t signify anything, or really even try to — it’s just an apes-on-the-rampage creature feature, with a decent setup, a wobbly second act, and a glorified-videogame urban-action-war payoff. The apes, in this case, look realistic if a bit rubbery and are led by one very, very shrewd chimpanzee named Caesar (a nod to the Roddy McDowall character in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). He’s played, deftly, by Andy Serkis, in a motion-capture performance that turns the actor who was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films into a scowling-eyed, mostly silent humanoid chimp so slow-burn angry that he’s almost handsome. Think of him as the Daniel Craig of higher primates.
Caesar, as the result of a corporate lab experiment, has been enhanced by ALZ-112, a brain-activating serum invented by Bay Area geneticist Will Rodman (James Franco) as a cure for Alzheimer’s. The stuff really works (Will tries it out on his mentally disintegrating father, played by John Lithgow), and it also makes chimps as smart as humans. When one of the apes that Will was experimenting on goes berserk, shutting down the project, Will takes home that chimp’s offspring — Caesar — who, it turns out, was born with his advanced intellect. Caesar still has an apish desire to swing through trees and attic rafters, and to bite things. If anything, his prehensile prowess is only heightened by his superior mind. For a while, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a Bedtime for Bonzo buddy movie played straight, and Franco, though he’s not very effective when he has to spout deep-think ”scientific” gibberish (he doesn’t act it so much as recite it), does make a convincingly cuddly ape daddy.
Caesar, chafing at his status as a quasi-pet, finally goes berserk himself, biting off a pesky neighbor’s finger, and he’s then sent to an ape shelter that’s basically a prison. This is where the movie sags — and also where it starts to get a bit silly, as in a scene where Caesar and a circus orangutan sign to each other in subtitles. (I half expected the next two lines to be: ”Did you see Jersey Shore last night?” ”Oh, man, what animals!”) For a while, the movie cheats the fact that none of these apes have been enhanced by AZL-112 (there’s an instantly campy scene where the apes in a zoo all rise, in unison, simply at Caesar’s mystical presence). But it finally devises a cheap way to get around it: They get dosed with the stuff at the last minute, so that Caesar can then lead an uprising of the oppressed. Power to the apes! Only what are they so mad about? That they live in zoos? The ballooning deficit? They’re angry because the movie needs them to go wild in the streets.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really one long lead-in to its set pieces: apes trashing downtown San Francisco, chimps slithering up the Golden Gate Bridge (a terrific image), gorillas tossing manhole covers at cop cars and leaping off the bridge into a helicopter. The movie’s supposed to be a cautionary tale, but it barely bothers to think out what it’s being cautionary about. These apes may be smart, but with the exception of Caesar, they’re really just effects. They never make you wonder who the maniacs are. B-