Faced with the horror of half-assed material from which he can’t escape, James Franco allows himself to be steamrolled by his pet monkey. The proof is the dynamic between the multi-hyphenate entertainer and his infinitely more animated animal co-star in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a relationship not unlike the one between the actor and Anne Hathaway at the 83rd Academy Awards. So, is Franco’s inability to fake it a sign of laziness or integrity? Maybe it’s neither and his inertness is the actor’s consideration of Lamarckian inheritance. Like the film that constrains him, a prequel to Planet of the Apes, perhaps Franco understands his performance as something that will one day evolve into something far greater.
Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 sci-fi classic was an audaciously pulpy, uniquely Serling-esque allegory for racial relations in Civil Rights-era America in which the historical relationship between whites and blacks was reversed. That sly allegory was hatefully perverted by white supremacists, even deemed derogatory by some in the Black Power movement, but its provocation is unmistakable as one directed against the forces of institutionalized racism. Rise of the Planet of the Apes’s only provocation is that it would appear to buy into the myth of a post-racial America. Rather than hold a mirror up to a country’s racial hostilities, it capitulates to Hollywood formula and political correctness; save for a tacky scene during which a scrawny white goon at an animal compound turns a fire hose on the uppity Caesar (a handsomely motion-captured and best-in-show Andy Serkis), it only has the best interests of PETA, not the NAACP, in mind.
The film’s straightforward plot revolves around a San Francisco company’s intention to come up with a cure for Alzheimer’s by testing a brain-repairing drug (ALZ-112) on apes. When the initial test subject, Bright Eyes, goes predictably ape-shit, though not for the reasons initially suspected, the program is shut down and the apes are euthanized, except for a baby ape exposed to the drug in utero that scientist Will Rodman (Franco) brings home to his Alzheimer’s-afflicted papa (John Lithgow) and watches as it grows over the years into a creature of intelligence far superior to that of your average human. Landing in an animal compound after biting off a douchebag’s finger, Caesar is mistreated to the point of getting his Braveheart on and commandeering his fellow apes toward freedom’s misty-skied horizon.
The grandeur-less Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t lack the courage of its convictions because it has few convictions at all. From the start, this visually inexpressive, wishy-washy spectacle of weird science run amok dawdles cleanly if banally toward its telegraphed climax; its lack of delicacy and emotional nuance doesn’t allow for poignancy, and its caginess is such that it never really functions as a screed against genetic engineering. Though it does attempt to goofily advance the notion of apes as beings morally superior to humans (at least to the film’s depthless own), of all of Caesar’s achievements, from hilariously signing to a circus orangutan to escaping his prison using a filched pocket knife, perhaps none is more impressive than his getting the vet played by Freida Pinto to put out for his human master. Pity that audiences will have to endure a sequel to learn if the couple, like the film itself, will evolve from its present chemistry-free torpor.