Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is not the greatest film ever to be set in San Francisco. That would be John Huston’s 1941 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon. Nor is it the second greatest. That would be Vertigo. Third best is Philip Kaufman’s impudent, mumbly, riotously non-orthogonal remake of Invasion Of The Body Snatchers. Fourth… Well you get the idea.
We could be here for quite a long time and get right the way through Zodiac, Dirty Harry, 48 Hrs, A View To A Kill, that bit in The Core where the Golden Gate Bridge goes all broken, and All Dogs Go To Heaven Part 2 before we get anywhere near Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.
How did this get made? Who are these people and what do they want from us? Is there literally no one in Hollywood who knows the meaning of the word otiose? And no, Otiose wasn’t one of the Muskehounds.
Planet Of The Apes started life as a 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle, “La Planète des singes” (English translation = Planet Of The Monkeys, yeah I know). It’s a surprisingly satirical book and was a considerable departure for a writer previously best known for having written Bridge On The River Kwai.
The book was stripped, gutted, turned inside out and presented to cinema audiences in 1968 as a straightforward science fiction adventure starring Charlton Heston.
(A quick note on spoilers here: I don’t want to wreck anyone’s fun by blurting out stuff that might not be known. This movie, however, is 43 years old now. I didn’t get any spoiler alerts on my box set of The World At War. The makers, quite correctly, guessed that I would know that the Allies won. If you’re seriously worried that I might divulge something you don’t want to know you may wish to visit a more considerate blog because I’m just going to trundle on regardless. As regards the movie at hand, Rise Of the Planet Of The Apes, there is so little that is mysterious once you have accepted that a planet of apes is going to rise that I’m not even going to try monitoring myself.)
It was good, the first movie. I’m a bit antipathetic towards Heston who always struck me as a limited actor and, in real life, a gun-waving loony. On the virtuous side of the scale though are the remarkable Jerry Goldsmith score, the intelligent, gentle acting of Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter, and of course the famous Statue Of Liberty ending, smart, but not as smart as Boulle’s ouroboric ending in the source novel.
The four Apes sequels are a mixed bunch.
Beneath The Planet Of The Apes is a bit of a re-tread but it gets points for its subterranean psychic tribe who worship a nuclear bomb from antiquity.
Escape From The Planet Of The Apes boasts some supple plotting as three apes (played by McDowall, Hunter and astonishingly enough Sal Mineo) escape to present day Earth and set up the events that will lead to the first film.
Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes and Battle For The Planet Of The Apes are less fulfilling affairs and are presumably the ones which prompted Bernard’s ace critical summary in Black Books, “You really believe monkeys could have meetings.”
There followed a live action TV series which had the same narrative problem experienced by the Logan’s Run TV series and Beyond Westworld (which was actually a TV sequel to Futureworld and so was technically waaaay Beyond Westworld) namely that the plot could neither alter the back-story nor propel the story forward in any non-reversible way. I’ve wasted a lot of my life watching TV episodes maintain the status quo. I am a nitwit.
There was also an animated TV show called Return To The Planet Of The Apes. I can’t speak about it with any authority, but the upside of that is that I have kissed some girls.
And that was that for a while. Occasionally the movies would crop up on TV. They were fondly remembered, re-mastered and re-released. John Chambers’ Oscar-winning makeup achievements stood the test of time. And who doesn’t like seeing Roddy McDowall in a film?
Then Tim Burton happened.
I don’t really like Tim Burton. Well I do. I like him. He seems like a big old cuddly emo kid who’s, like, really attracted to dark, inane melancholy, but his oeuvre mostly makes my pancreas spasm. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow do it for me, but I lack the gastrointestinal fortitude for the rest of them. Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Alice In Bloody Wonderland? No, no, no, no, no. Not on my retinas.
And really what was the point of Tim Burton’s Planet Of The Apes? It just looked like a chance for him to have his grubby way with logic without having to go to the trouble of treating logic to a dinner and a dance first.
An unjustifiable waste of cash and acting talent. We move on.
What the intention of the makers of the recently released Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is remains a bit of a conundrum. Well they want a machine that eats air and shits out iridium, obviously, but artistically it’s a conundrum.
It isn’t part of the narrative continuum of the first five films but it makes constant reference to them, to the extent that a casual viewer is likely to be utterly mystified. A chimpanzee called Cornelia! Big important thing! Oh no, we never see her again. Mission to Mars goes missing! We cut back to it twice! Then it never gets mentioned again. Oh, and look, a clip on TV of Charlton Heston giving it ham factor ten in The Agony And The Ecstasy.
If you are the kind of person who chortles at all the werewolf movie references in The Howling or is driven to nudge the person next to you when Steven Spielberg turns up in Gremlins or The Blues Brothers then you will find all this fascinating. If you aren’t, and we mostly aren’t, you won’t.
Positioning itself in the vicinity of Conquest and Battle, Rise tells the story of a genius chimpanzee (son of a mother who was being treated with experimental brain medicine) who rebels against his oppression and rallies monkey-kind in an uprising.
Have I missed anything out? No. I really haven’t.
It’s a weirdly constructed film. The guy who is putatively the hero, James Franco (I have no idea if we ever even learned his character name), is responsible for the whole mess in the first place. He hides and encourages Caesar the rebel chimp, stands around pointlessly as people are killed and then apologises rather sulkily towards the end of the film.
There is a notional heroine, a vet played by Freida Pinto, but she drifts in and out of the story with all the Rabelaisian energy of the inert gas xenon. I don’t even remember what happened to her at the end of the film and I only saw it four fucking hours ago.
So it’s Caesar the chimpanzee who becomes the central character by default. Fair enough. He’s played by Andy Serkis who has brought a distinctive physicality to special effects characters in the past (Gollum and King Kong) using motion capture technology.
Now I don’t wish to come across as an old, resentful, crotchety, good-looking Luddite, but that’s what I am so it will inevitably happen. The thing is I liked effects in the olden days. I liked those solid model effects that Doug Trumbull and Derek Meddings used to do. Look at 2001, Silent Running, Superman, Moonraker and many others today and, the odd matte line notwithstanding, they still look pretty amazing. And with the original Apes films the apes on horseback looked real because they were real. They were actors in painstakingly constructed masks.
It’s all motion capture these days anyway, and what I know about motion capture I have gleaned from switching off, in the first two minutes, over 100 different DVD featurettes about some actor mincing around in a green leotard with reflective ping pong balls glued to it.
The computer gets a notion of how the actor moves apparently and then translates it into a fully realised animated character on film in a process called JarJarBinksing. Great.
Except it looks shit.
There is so much in this film that is disappointing:
*James Franco clearly confusing the process of “acting” with the process of “furrowing his own brow”.
*The frittering away of talent like Brian Cox and John Lithgow.
*The least convincing science you will ever see outside a shampoo commercial. “Look,” shouts Franco boffinishly pointing at a line among other lines. “That was his IQ a month ago. This his IQ now!” He points even more boffinishly at a broadly similar line a bit further down. “It’s more than doubled!” They never mention whether or not the experimental brain medicine mends split ends.
*Appalling dialogue. “I love chimpanzees,” intones the vet profoundly. “And I am scared of chimpanzees. It is appropriate to be scared of chimpanzees.” You may wish to write this down in your jotter in case the film becomes too hard to understand later on.
So much to be disappointed by then, but I thought I would at least enjoy the special effects. Fat chance. A lot of them are sub-Jumanji even. There is that constant ghostly disjunction between actual things and computer-generated things. Jurassic Park looked better than this in 1993.
Are there any saving graces? Well Lithgow and Cox are great for the small amount of time they get. And, after a disastrous first eighty minutes, things do perk up slightly for a bit of Wrath Of Khan-age rumbling on the Golden Gate Bridge where the apes’ ability to think in 3D gives them a tactical advantage over the ground-based humans, but it’s a long hot trudge for a very watery glass of Ribena.
I’d have had more fun with back to back old Grape Ape episodes. He’s over forty feet high you know.