RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence

Has anyone else noticed that around the time we elected Ronald Reagan president, American cinema began a steady decline? The same mentality that led us to George Bush, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann and the Tea Party, has led us to deliver films like RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to a public no longer interested in using their brains. In fact, “intelligent” and “educated” have become dirty words, perhaps even anti-American. So for a country that helped shepherd in cinema as an art and a craft –as we did Democracy and Capitalism as schools of thought– we have shamed ourselves by veering so far off course as to appear like adults who have grown into infancy.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the perfect example of how bad a film can be in this current age of Hollywood. And how brain-washed or starved film critics are that they would actually apply words like “smart,” “intelligent,” and “complex” to a film like APES.

“An emotionally complex story, evocative and engaging.” —Bruce Diones, The New Yorker 

“The cautionary tale feels surprisingly fresh and entertaining… Franco is charismatic as a dedicated scientist… With top-notch computer-generated images, this sci-fi action thriller revives the series and creates a palpable sense of tension.” —Claudia Puig, USA Today  

“The film, which Rupert Wyatt directed from an audacious screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, rises above its dramatic deficits, boosts the collective IQ of this summer’s movies and swings into flights of kinetic fantasy that blow the collective mind…” —Joe Morgenstern, Wall Street Journal  

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” does it right. Smart, fun and thoroughly enjoyable, it’s a model summer diversion that entertains without insulting your intelligence… “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is partly because it’s strong in the areas all films, not just summer blockbusters, should be. It’s effectively written by the team of Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and well acted both by stars like James Franco and John Lithgow and supporting players like the protean Brian Cox… British director Rupert Wyatt’s previous feature was the excellent prison-break drama “The Escapist,” but he proved to be a shrewd choice to make a film about an entire species breaking free of eons of restraint, one that includes some of the most potent species versus species conflict since Alfred Hitchcock‘s “The Birds.” …A director who knows how to bring drive and momentum to material he connects with, Wyatt works with editors Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt (both veterans of several James Cameron projects) to create a crackerjack sense of pace. And cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, who shot the “Lord of the Rings” films, gives “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” an exciting wide-screen feeling while providing numerous bravura visual moments.” —Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times 

“Precisely the kind of summer diversion that the studios have such a hard time making now.” —Manohla Dargis, New York Times 

Excuse me for a moment while I attempt to lift my jaw off the ground.

These comments are straight out of the Twilight Zone for me. They are truly from a different planet than the one I inhabit. Now granted, most of our film critics today are either fancy bloggers (far fancier than myself) or journalists hired as a paper’s film critic for reasons other than having any knowledge of film, its history or its craft. But there are a number of critics who have been around a while who have given this film glowing reviews. I say this with all seriousness: I will never read them again. I cannot trust them.

For the record, I take no issue with anyone who simply found the experience of watching APES enjoyable. It’s one thing to enjoy a film even though you know it’s highly flawed. It’s another to call it smart, well-written, complex. Those are two very, very different things. There are many films I recognize as not being particularly impressive works of cinema, some I even recognize as downright awful, but for one reason or many, I still find them enjoyable. Guilty-pleasures, as it were.

Thankfully, I am not completely alone in being appalled by this film’s brain-dead incompetence. There are some critics out there who recognized this tepid mess for what it was and were not afraid to say so in their reviews. They have my respect and I will be looking forward to more of their opinions and observations regarding film. Hopefully, with one or two of them, their ability to recognize weak, lazy screenwriting and uninspired directing and acting will be reflected in future reviews. Here are a handful of them who have, at least this time around, garnered my respect:

 “A creature feature of disappointing stupidity… Those early [APE] movies may look cheesy now, but the guys in the monkey suits at least gave Charlton Heston something solid to respond to. The stars of this incarnation, like the sick chimps of 28 Days Later, are just barreling balls of unspecified quadruped fury, swarming over the Golden Gate Bridge and tossing manhole covers like discuses. For all we know they could be protesting the lack of primate roles on network television.” –Jeannette Catsoulis, NPR  

“The production notes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes” calls it “the first live-action film in the history of movies to star, and be told from the point of view of, a sentient animal – a character with human-like qualities, who can strategize, organize, and ultimately lead a revolution, and with whom audiences will experience a real emotional bond.” Didn’t “Zookeeper” already do that? What about “Rocky”?… This is the kind of movie where the characters are always saying things like, “What are you saying?” Plot points are continually reiterated. Obviously director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t think we in the audience are as smart as Caesar.” —Peter Rainer, Christian Science Monitor  

“They probably should have called it “Beneath the Dignity of the Planet of the Apes… Freida Pinto gets to spend the movie doing nothing except standing next to Franco looking like Freida Pinto, which ought to be enough but somehow isn’t. Three years from Best Picture to Best Human Scenery? Depressing… A nasty guard (Tom Felton, a k a Draco Malfoy) has “first victim” written all over him. Yet it takes the movie a good 45 minutes to catch up to the audience. Why the guard — a twerp who looks like your average Kinko’s employee, not a sadist whose brutality is responsible for changing the fate of the Earth — gets so much screen time is a mystery. Especially when the movie’s got the ably villainous Brian Cox, who once played Hannibal Lecter, sitting around nearby… The monkeys don’t seem to want anything except to live in the redwood forest and maybe an apology for the 1976 version of “King Kong.” But as they settle down and establish themselves as the alpha species, I couldn’t quite summon much terror. Could they really be any worse than the real-life government of the state of California?” —Kyle Smith, New York Post

“Less wonderful [than the ape effects] are his fully human co-stars. James Franco, no matter how many degrees he amasses in real life, will never convince as a brilliant research scientist. The script, at its worst, stoops to having [Freida Pinto] pause before a cataclysmic battle, give Franco a kiss and whisper “Be careful.” If you have popcorn, you may want to throw it.” —Stephen Whitty, The Star Ledger 

“The filmmakers seem to have spent so much attention and, presumably, money on getting the primates right that they completely forgot about the people. Led by a mumble-mouthed James Franco in the role of Will Rodman, the cast of human actors is uniformly weak. John Lithgow is especially embarrassing as Will’s dodderingly senile father, but the list of offenders – and their acting offenses – is long. At one end of the dramatic spectrum is Freida Pinto, who’s almost invisible as Will’s veterinarian girlfriend. At the other end there’s David Oyelowo, who chews the scenery and spits it out as Will’s money-grubbing pharmaceutical-company boss. Brian Cox is somewhere in between. As the director of the animal shelter where the apes foment their revolution after Caesar is sent there for attacking a human, Cox exudes smarmily sinister incompetence but little else. As for Felton, his character’s malevolence is even more over the top than the actor’s work in the “Harry Potter” movies, where he played the maleficent Draco Malfoy. Here’s a movie mixing live action and CGI in which the humans are the least interesting thing about it. Not to mention the least plausible.” —Michael O’Sullivan, Washington Post

“[A] lineup of dull characters and a limp story that functions like a conveyor belt. Viewers get on, know where it’s heading, and that’s where it goes.” —Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

To suffer through the writing that accompanies RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is something only Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld could condone. Now I personally know all too well that the script as it appears on screen and the script as it may have been originally written or envisioned may not be one and the same. Oftentimes writers-for-hire are simply reflecting the desires of those who sign their checks. For good or ill. But it’s been a very long time since I’ve seen a film with characters so paper-thin and generic. Poor James Franco, such a good actor when he cares about the material, but so awkward and bland when he doesn’t. Now I can’t speak for what was actually going through Franco’s mind while the cameras were rolling on this puppy, but let’s just say the end result was reminiscent of his performance as host of the Academy Awards. It seems when Franco knows the material’s bad, he gives it the least amount of effort possible; as if silently saying “Don’t believe for a second that I think this is good.” There’s an air of embarrassment to his performance. A dull “I wish I were anywhere but here” quality that no paycheck can erase. Now please don’t misunderstand me. I have a great respect for James Franco and his talent. I think he’s one of our more fascinating and talented young actors. But when you give him little-to-nothing to work with, he accurately reflects that back.

The only character in this film with anything to do is the ape Caesar. And he is played (via digital recreation) by the now quite famous Andy Serkis. And his performance has been singled out by both lovers and haters of the film. And rightfully so. Serkis commits. But that doesn’t make the script any better. But it does give us something to hold on to, however tenuous that may be. Perhaps this is what has captured audiences’s attention: that they could care for a digital character in a minefield of dull, dimwitted humans. But at the end of the day, this technological achievement still has backward momentum insofar as storytelling goes. THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS director Gillo Pontecorvo’s now famous statement, “Technically U.S. directors keep improving. But this technical expertise hides an emptiness that keeps getting bigger. They’re very good at saying nothing,” seems to have been quite a prescient commentary on this very film; APES is the epitome of the decline Pontecorvo was witnessing in American cinema.

So how do films like this get made? Well, let’s look at some of the comments and advice that have been tossed my way by other filmmakers and producers: Clive Barker’s insistence that a horror film should have a scare planted every seven minutes (as if it were a recipe for the perfect blintz) is one that boggles my mind. Talk about formulas! I’m glad most of the great horror filmmakers didn’t have the opportunity to confer with Barker before moving into production. Then there was producer Chris Sievernich, who insisted a filmmaker should never do more than one take on any individual shot or performance. Unless of course the gate was dirty and we HAD to do another. Chris’s concern wasn’t with the quality of the filmmaking or the acting, but with the delivery of exposed celluloid. And as little of it as humanly possible, regardless of the caliber of its contents. Or how about the conversation I recently had with a producer (who shall remain nameless) whose latest big Hollywood remake was filled with so many gaps of inner logic as to drive an armada of luxury motor yachts through. When asked about the making of the film, he informed me that they knew the film had no inner logic, that it broke every rule it set up. But they didn’t care. He claimed that none of the test audiences noticed it so they figured it didn’t matter.

It. Didn’t. Matter.

What ever happened to pride in filmmaking? What ever happened to a desire to not only make money, but to make the best film possible? Is it that hard, once you’ve gathered all the elements together and have the money in place, to actually strive for quality beyond visual effects?

And speaking of visual effects, I have to say that at least half the time in APES, I found the digital chimps to be more distracting than engaging. No matter how far along we are, we still haven’t managed to give these things weight. There’s an insubstantial smoothness to the characters that make them feel shallow to me. Like wax museum figures come to life. There’s something to be said for trying too hard to make something look “real.” Cinema is not reality. I will take the artistry of a Stan Winston, Rob Bottin or John Chambers over the greatest digital artists working today. Not to diminish those talents, mind you. Digital has a place, it’s a wonderful tool and a very valid art, but it has not reached a point where I, personally, prefer it over actual three-dimensional objects or, by the same token, a beautiful matte painting. I go more on how it “feels” rather than how “realistic” it appears.

So director Rupert Wyatt’s direction of following a very digital baby chimp around as it swings and careens over lamps and through tree branches feels nothing more than a gimmick weighed down by an unwelcome, over-used familiarity. It lacks inspiration or originality. I would go so far as to say that I found the film’s visual style –Wyatt’s storytelling choices– to be, aside from its widescreen aspect ratio, more in sync with a made-for-televsion-movie than with something one expects to find showing at the local cinema. There was not a single image or movement in this film that carried an ounce of weight for me. Wyatt’s direction felt as unsubstantial as most of the digital characters bounding tirelessly across the screen. I could find no distinct vision there. Not even Andrew Lesnie’s lighting could save this film from the lifeless compositions and predictable camera-moves.

As for the other actors, I’ve always loved John Lithgow, and I would like to think he did as much as could be done with what he was given, but what he was given never attempted to move beyond the generic and obvious depictions of someone with Alzheimer’s. For me, the end result –within the context of this film– bordered on camp. Mr. Lithgow was, quite simply put, not in good hands. And while Freida Pinto may well be the single most beautiful woman ever created, she has little-to-nothing to do here. Or, as critic Stephen Whitty of the Star-Ledger observed: “Freida Pinto plays one of those movie girlfriends who seems to be there simply to prove that the hero isn’t gay.”

Brian Cox is completely wasted as a character with no arc, no purpose and no resolution. And Tom Felton as his son is such a one-note villain, such a first-draft concept of a character, that throwing the classic line “Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!” into his mouth makes us even more aware of how little originality or care was taken in creating these characters, this world. The film would not have played any worse if the human actors had been nothing more than cardboard cutouts on sticks. They were certainly written as such.

For the record, I would much rather be writing a glowing piece on APES congratulating it on breaking free of the doldrums of contemporary Hollywood to offer us something of value, something inspired. But I cannot. At the end of the day, I would rather see a film that tries for greatness and fails, than see a film like APES which appears to strive for very little and –box office numbers notwithstanding– succeeds.

Luckily, there is always a silver lining. If nothing else, this APES reminds us just how great the original film was. And how, even at their worst, the four original sequels that followed never stooped this low. Not even the wretched BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES which at least shows effort in the face of an almost non-existent budget.

Beyond that, I think this film should be a fantastic motivator for American writers and filmmakers to do everything they can to return us to an age where we strive for more from our art, from our entertainment, as I hope we will one day strive for more from our politicians, our government. In a town like Hollywood, overrun with writers, to allow a script of this low-quality, something this lazy, this poorly written and executed to make its way into a multi-million dollar production, should shame us into action. I see it as a call to arms. A “RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE WRITERS,” as it were.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES or The Descent Of American Intelligence