Did we need another Planet of the Apes after Tim Burton’s widely criticised 2001 reboot of the franchise?
Someone in Hollywood clearly thought so and thus we’re given a prequel, directed by Rupert Wyatt (known for not very much) and starring James Franco, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Tom Felton and Andy Serkis in motion-capture as the ape, Caesar (oh, how clever).
The premise is to show just how this ape-overtakes-human malarkey began and which provides an actual believable premise – the scientific workings of Will Rodman as he tries to find a cure for Alzheimer’s which his father (Lithgow) is struck down with. The experiment goes wrong, the test apes are put down except for one baby ape whose mother was a test subject. The ‘cure’ repairs brain tissue and increases intelligence and baby Caesar is going to be the lucky recipient of brain power that grows exponentially as he gets older.
Eventually Caesar grows too wily and too aggressive (he is a teenager, after all) and is put into a sanctuary run by cruel wardens where he meets and wins over his fellow inmates, and then all hell breaks loose.The main problem is that by the time that hell bit happens, you’re practically asleep in your chair as the set up into the action is paced slower than a wet week. Of course, Wyatt probably felt that to have a believable outcome from a credible premise the audience needed to be taken on the same journey as Caesar himself.
Lithgow, as the ailing father deep in the disturbing clutches of Alzheimer’s, provides the film’s only gravitas, leaving his co-stars fighting to give their one-dimensional characters any depth. Pinto and Franco are decent actors but the material they have to work with is flimsy and, at times, haplessly cheesy. Felton dials in a performance that’s every bit as camp and pantomime as Malfoy’s scowling theatrics and Tyler Labine (as a lab technician) chews through the scenery. His crucial to plot demise actually provokes a hooting cheer from the audience.
In fact, far too many scenes were greeted by laughter and the kind of whooping that normally accompanies films like Scream, where the helpless, dumb-ass cheerleader gets an axe through the head after shrieking like a banshee for 15 minutes. To say this is a camp film is making an understatement. The CGI (done by Avatar’s crew Weta Digital) is omnipresent and, to give credit, the humans work well alongside it, particularly Franco, when they could so easily be either upstaged or out of their depth.
However, things do get extremely silly in the third act. From Caesar’s first uttered word – a growl turning into thundering NOOOOOOO that would put Richard Burton’s gravelly tones to shame – which elicited howls of laughter in the cinema, to apes climbing over the Golden Gate Bridge and attacking helicopters. It’s so heavy on the CGI that most of the picture has that light haze which seems to appear when there are too many edges to define and by blurring by a millimetre means 20 less hours slaving over a hot computer. Andy Serkis/Caesar also gets sublimely ridiculous. In Tim Burton’s attempt, Tim Roth oozed malice and psychopathic tendencies so magnificently it was, at times, chilling to watch. Here, Serkis turns the cranky Caesar into a cartoon gangster and, at one point, Derek Zoolander with all that posing and preening atop of cars. Add in some kind of moral/ethical dilemma and police with really bad aim as they try to fell him with bullets and you’ve got an audience mostly sniggering to themselves.
This is by no means a summer blockbuster of worth – it’s neither a successful drama nor a cracking actioner. It’s dull, long winded and apart from some well done computerised monkeys, there’s so little to entice you to watch that this may actually make Burton’s Planet of the Apes that one step closer to good.