Rise of the Planet of the Apes Dir. Rupert Wyatt

[20th Century Fox; 2011]

Styles: reboots, action, sci-fi
Others: Planet of the Apes, Planet of the Apes

The great writer William Goldman once said about the movies (I’m paraphrasing): Well-made should be the norm, not something we raise on a pedestal. No summer movie this year seems to better exemplify this aphorism than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a surprise hit getting lots of word of mouth for not being as shitty as everyone expected.

Well-made as it may be, Apes definitely begs the question: Should the norm never be raised onto a pedestal? And: Might things in the Zookeeper/Cowboys and Aliens market be so bad that simple competency is the sack of air needed to save big movies from choking to death? Desperate times calls for drastic measures, like actually making a decent movie out of material no one could hear about without laughing.

Because competency doesn’t come easy for a movie that attempts to wring sympathy from a battalion of big-brained CGI chimpanzees. For one thing, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is hugely expensive, and a big part of that expense is expected to be covered by people who aren’t even willing to accept that we’ve descended from apes, much less that they could be smarter than us. Pleasing the Christian Right means big bucks — something that every movie vying for Biggest Blockbuster of the Summer needs to consider, but that this one apparently hasn’t.

For another thing, it’s been a long time (six years at minimum) since we had apes we could sympathize with in the movies. In the meantime, it’s men, not apes, being injected with growth serums (Hulk, Wolverine, Captain America) who’ve been getting all the attention. Never mind that evolution and ape-injections are both real-world facts — Rise of the Planet of the Apes had knocks of ridiculousness and prejudice against it from the get-go, and it still emerges as maybe least ridiculous of the big summer movies.

Of course real-world facts have nothing to do with apes becoming super-intelligent and figuring ways to out-flank SWAT teams and take down attack choppers. That kind of untoward behavior — whether enacted by smart chimps, big green men, or patriotic mascots — is saved for summer action. Here it’s enacted on a mist-covered Golden Gate Bridge, with the newly brained apes employing every tactic in the guerrilla warfare handbook (or maybe from the warrior instinct inherent to ape genes) to outsmart San Francisco’s finest. But before we get to see apes battle SWAT teams, there’s a whole legend to set up, as this is a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes (1968), the movie that explains why Charlton Heston was on earth all along.

So Will Rodman (James Franco) is a hollow-eyed research scientist who’s devoted his career to corporate profit (that he’s a private sector scientist portrayed as idealistic is easily the most ridiculous thing in this movie about an ape uprising). He’s invented a serum to cure Alzheimer’s and has been testing it on the apes his company has handily provided. They get smart quick, but a frantic mother ape runs amok, causes a stir of panic at the corporation, and winds up getting all of her ape friends euthanized. All except one. A baby chimp named Caesar is smuggled home by Rodman and raised as a son.

Caesar will live up to his name. For the most part, so will the movie. By the end, after the setup and about an hour’s worth of plot machinations (mostly concerning torture-happy humans pitted against computer-generated apes we tend to sympathize with), we get the barest beginnings of an ape uprising — the battle on the Golden Gate and only a slight hint of more. It’s enough to make a person think the screenwriter’s were at least as competent as the digital-ape animators, competent enough to plant an effective cliffhanger.

So does it warrant a pedestal if a movie can make ridiculous material not-so-ridiculous? No. The most memorable thing about this movie isn’t the way the apes have been humanized — which was surely the intention. It’s the climactic battle scene, wherein Apes delivers the basic element of what a summer movie should be and prevents us from laughing at smart apes. If mere competency in big budget movies (Apes) gives us nothing new, but big ambition with the same budgets (say, Sucker Punch) makes a movie nearly incomprehensible, we’d still be crazy not to favor the ambitious.

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