Thursday, 7 March 2013

Young Franco-stein...Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Young Franco-stein

Sometimes it’s necessary to take a pinch of salt with a film.  To suspend your disbelief.  For Rise of the Planet of the Apes you’re going to need about 3 litres of saline administered intravenously.

First, there’s that questionable tagline.  You’ve probably seen it on posters and on the side of buses - EVOLUTION BECOMES REVOLUTION.  It’s a minor quibble but surely as the film involves club and spear-wielding apes overthrowing their gun-toting, helicopter-flying, human overlords it should’ve been DEVOLUTION BECOMES REVOLUTION.  Sure, these apes are pretty smart but we never see any of them book a budget airline flight back to the Congo or successfully program their TiVo box to record the third series of Sons of Anarchy. 

Second, there’s James Franco.  Ah, James Franco.  In a frankly baffling casting move almost as insulting as when M. Night Whateverhisfaceis expected us to believe underwear model and former rapper Marky Mark (sans Funky Bunch) as a high-school science teacher in The Happening, Rise of the Planet of the Apes expects us to swallow professional stoner James Franco as a brilliant neuroscientist who, in the process of curing Alzheimer’s, creates a race of super-intelligent simians.  Brilliant?  Neuroscientist?  James Franco?  DID ANYONE NOT SEE FRANCO’S PERFORMANCE HOSTING THE OSCARS?  All he had to do was read an autocue and flirt with sentient bobblehead Anne Hathaway.  And he couldn’t even do that convincingly.  Franco playing a brilliant scientist may be the most perverse casting choice since someone had the bright idea of casting Barbra Streisand as a beautiful high-class call girl in Nuts.

Dr Will Rodman (Franco) is on the verge of perfecting a cure for Alzheimer’s when super-intelligent test chimp Bright Eyes goes ape, trashing the lab and attacking the investors before being shot by security.  The suits funding Will’s research pull the plug, ordering Will to start again and ordering a dirt-nap for the rest of the test subjects.  While Will and his Fat Comedy Assistant (Tyler Labine) are busy euthanising the rest of the monkeys, they discover Bright Eyes was only trying to protect her newborn baby and. not having the stomach to kill the little tyke, Will takes the chimp home and he and his dementia-stricken dad (the always reliable John Lithgow) pull a Project Nim (also out this week), teaching the chimp sign language and naming him Caesar.  Incidentally, anyone else think calling a super-intelligent orphan chimp Caesar is just asking for trouble?  If only they’d just called him Bubbles or Bonzo… 

Dosed in the womb with Will’s wonder drug, Caesar’s exceptionally intelligent, understands human speech and reason, learning at an exponential rate, faster than a human child while Will begins dosing his dad with his Alzheimer’s cure, restoring him to his former self.  Will even finds time to start dating a pretty, though superfluous, vet (Slumdog mannequin Freida Pinto).  But, after five idyllic years, dad’s dementia returns with a vengeance and when Caesar attacks a neighbour while defending the old codger, the chimp is dragged off to a crappy animal shelter run by sleazy Brian Cox and his sadistic son, Draco Malfoy…er, Tom Felton.  Brutalised by his incarceration and enraged by his fellow apes’ treatment, Caesar breaks out of poky, steals some handy canisters of Will’s smart drug and doses his fellow inmates, leading them in revolt against their human masters like a monkey Spartacus.  Cue lots of monkey mayhem as the apes go bananas and trash San Francisco.

Surprisingly smart and funny, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far better than it really has any right to be.  Drawing on the Charlton Heston 1968 original movie, Planet of the Apes (while wisely ignoring Tim Burton’s 2001 cinematic reboot/abortion), and borrowing key elements of Michael Crichton’s 2006 novel Next, the film zips along, throwing some genuine hard sci-fi at you while never pausing long enough to let you realise just how preposterous the whole thing is.

Gollum/Andy Serkis once again gives his trademark CGI performance as Caesar, breathing life into the simian Che Guevara and John Lithgow is wonderful as Franco’s father, convincing as a man fighting a losing battle to hang on to his self.  Brian Cox and ex-Spook David Oyewolo are good as the boo-hiss bad guys while Hogwarts-graduate Felton swaps his wand for a cattle prod and pleasingly chews the scenery as the cruel animal handler, even bagging Heston’s classic line: “Take your stinking paws of me, you damn dirty ape!”  Pinto is boring and superfluous as Franco’s boring and superfluous love interest, a Thunderbird-puppet with lovely shiny hair, while Franco sleepwalks through his role as the film’s modern Frankenstein (or Franco-Stein, fnar, fnar), a supposedly brilliant scientist who, in a classic twofer, unwittingly unleashes not only a race of super monkeys but a deadly virus with the potential to destroy humanity.  Again, this is the guy who couldn’t read an autocue and flirt with Anne Hathaway at the same time.  If our destruction is in the hands of that bloke from Pineapple Express who didn’t get the Oscar for chopping off his own arm in that film about the doofus who fell down a hole, well, we can all sleep soundly in our beds.

Against all the odds, British director Rupert Wyatt has delivered the impossible; a big-budget, Hollywood popcorn movie that’s not afraid of being a dark, intense slice of science fiction, pleasing existing Apes fans and satisfying newcomers to the franchise.  Plus, how many other films this Summer have a gorilla punching both a horse and a helicopter?

David Watson

Rupert Wyatt
James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo
Running time

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