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A Half-Baked Puppet Show Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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A Half-Baked Puppet Show: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The original Planet of the Apes series was an unsubtle yet striking response to the turbulent times from which the films were made. In its own way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems to be branching off from a kind of apolitical unrest, not sure what it’s fighting against but mad as hell and unwilling to take it anymore. While the human characters are presented with mild sympathy (particularly the attractive lead actors, James Franco and Frida Pinto), the audience is clearly intended to side with the apes. Maybe because the culture watching this film is generally dissatisfied, yearning for more, and not necessarily articulate about how they want to make it better, but it sure feels good to see the old system torn down.

As helicopters are knocked out of the sky by leaping gorillas and smaller primates climb over, under, and through the riot brigade police force called upon to stop the apes, there’s a sense of spectacle, for sure, but after the initial thrill wears off, there’s the realization that there’s no sincere sense of danger at play here. The PG-13 violence means that only bad-guy humans and victimized apes get killed off. There’s a vague whiff of betrayal when this movie reveals it has no teeth.

The first three-quarters of Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes even less of an impression, going for a slow-burn origin-story build-up following a unique ape named Caesar (played by Andy Serkis). There’s a sense of hitting plot points as we go rather than watching a story unfold. Our hero ape begins life as a surrogate child/pet to his scientist creator, Will (Franco), until the humans realize he’s an animal and has to be kept in a cage, where he gradually earns the respect, trust, and community of his fellow apes. Since the title of the movie clearly explains where the whole thing is going, there’s no actual suspense, just a passive sense of dread while we wait for the inevitable.

As for the humans, they aren’t much help. Franco and Pinto aren’t playing characters per se; they’re stand-ins for moral platitudes (“We’re trying to control something that is not meant to be controlled!”) or half-baked emotions (“Caesar, I promise I will bring you home!”). Will, who made Caesar what he is, seeks to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, and we get a handful of scenes between Franco and John Lithgow (as the Alzheimer’s-plagued father) that read as a subplot, or even filler, in between the main narrative of Caesar’s transition from demeaned slave to rebel leader.

The humans seem less human than the computer-generated apes. So here we are, rooting for the apes the entire time, even if the CGI techniques are today’s equivalent of a well-done puppet show. (I wonder how the film will age, and if it will soon feel dated.) Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise, as well as the titular beast in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, manages to transcend the limitations of pixels and motion-capture technology. While his performance as Caesar here doesn’t rival his innovative Gollum, he still conveys depth and nuance and a fully realized character even when we the audience are hyper-aware of watching something inherently fake-looking. It’s an impressive stunt, but I do hope Serkis finds himself cast more frequently in his human form.

But for now, I’m sure Serkis is satisfied cashing his checks for what will surely be a lucrative new job, as I’m sure Caesar will establish global dominance in the inevitable sequels. In all fairness, Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have the potential to kick-start an imaginative new take on the Planet of the Apes franchise. Some of the original films are better than others, and our prevailing memory of the sequels is of apes taking back the power. I wonder if this new series can afford to be bolder in its design. It might tap into the cultural zeitgeist in a way as equally unsubtly, but as memorably, as its cinematic ape-movie predecessors.

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