Half Man – Half Ape, or Half Epic – Half Brainless Blockbuster?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the tale of an ape, given the gift of hyper-intelligence, at the tipping point between evolving and maintaining his animal nature, caught between something bold and new and something simple. It’s oddly apt that the film itself also teeters between bold and simple. It’s got the simple appeal of a nostalgia-fueled action film, but it’s also reaching for something more complex and lasting. Let’s see where it comes out…

Despite its pedigree, the film faces challenges from the get-go; for starters, you come in worrying that you’ll find it difficult to take James Franco seriously enough to not only envision him as a scientist, but also to care about his science (a new drug that genetically manipulates Alzheimer’s disease patients to cure them – I see no downsides looming!). Luckily, it turns out that this movie, like us, doesn’t really care about James Franco, or really even the science; it’s got a better man in its sights.

Or I guess better ape. The real protagonist of this film is actually Caesar, the genetically-modified intelligent ape that Franco has created with his Alzheimer’s disease cure. The film follows Caesar from birth to rapid development, on through becoming a part of Franco’s family, and ending up, via a tragic event, thrust into the company of a number of apes that are much less evolved than he. Caesar’s journey is the heart of this film, and it’s certainly a vital one.

That journey is portrayed really artfully. Thanks to some adept and stylish directing by Rupert Wyatt, Caesar’s early life swinging wildly and fluidly through his makeshift bedroom segues easily into the intense territorial struggles between the apes, which eventually becomes a seriously smart and entertaining set-piece final battle between ape and man. Caesar’s story is so well-told (in no small part due to evocative motion capture acting by Andy Serkis and the large visual effects team behind him), and we feel right along with him throughout the emotional journey he’s experiencing, experiencing these emotions for the very first time through his eyes.

Though maybe, in looking back on the film, I’m seeing something different than was presented to me. The truth is, while Caesar is the center, and his bits are really great, the film spends a lot of its time on the pseudoscience of the drug and the politics and ethics of its testing. It also wastes precious seconds on Franco’s “love interest” (that honestly couldn’t be called anything more than merely his “interest;” theromance in this story is imperceptible and unexplored).

No, the things I remember about the film are the slow building tribe of rebellious apes, the swelling humanity of our hero Cesar, the flawless character arc that drives this leader to his inevitable coup, and the breathless action sequences. Those things were all really interesting and really well-done. And by themselves, they represent some of the best film-making this year.

That might be why I have some lingering doubts about praising this film unequivocally: I can’t help but wonder why exactly I’ve forgotten so much of the film, why only the things I liked are leaping to my mind.

Don’t mistake me: these somewhat forgettable sections are not really bad. They’re just conventional and inconsequential. The real trouble is that the rest is brilliant; it’s the most elegant and moving portrayal of the humanization of a non-human I’ve seen in a while. That disproportionate quality problem is what really irks me here.

So where does that leave us? Maybe this movie rests in that weird valley where Caesar himself lingers for most of this movie: he’s so human in so many ways, but still so wild, so animal in others. This film is equally stuck, but between brilliance and convention. And the film, unfortunately, will never get the chance to evolve.

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