Rotpota (as we like to call it) opens in the deep jungle; where a group of apes are being hunted by men. I understand the scene closely mimics the capture of Charlton Heston in the opening of the original Planet of the Apes. If that is indeed an accurate statement, then it’s an intelligent and well thought out way of referencing what came before. An avid fan of the series notices the “shout-out” and smiles, whilst those less familiar with the franchise enjoy the scene as is. A little internet research suggests the film is littered with such nods, which is something I don’t have a problem with in theory or practice – as almost all of them went straight over my head anyway. However, it appears that the filmmakers spent more time researching such fan shout outs and finding subtle ways to incorporate them, than actually writing the film; as what is presented, once you remove the stunning special effects, has to go down as one of dullest, most pointless releases this year.
The aforementioned apes are transported to a San Francisco laboratory to be experimented on. When one breaks loose and attacks the board of directors, the boss orders the whole line be exterminated. This is not good news for super scientist Will Rodman who is testing his cure for Alzheimer’s on them. Will is driven by both professional interests (making more money for the pharmaceutical company he works for) and private ones (his father Charles suffers from the aforementioned disease). So, when faced with either killing the last baby chimp or smuggling it out and raising it as his own, Will chooses the latter. Giving it the name Ceaser, Will is shocked to learn that the young chimp has signs of the Alzheimer’s cure passed on from his mother; and that the magic substance has increased the animal’s intelligence exponentially. Soon, the young ape is reading and communicating in sign language. As he grows, Ceaser becomes increasingly uncertain of his place in the Rodman family until, well, I’ll leave you to guess what happens next (he does not put on a suit and get a job, no matter how much Alex wanted this to happen).
Do you think, maybe, some apes rise up? You think? Rise of the Planet of the Apes suffers from many distinct problems. Firstly, we know what’s going to happen. There are no curve balls, no surprises. This is not a superhero film, where you know the hero will win in the end, but you don’t know how. This is a “we know beat by beat what’s going to happen in this entire film, because, if nothing else, it’s called ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’, and there have been 6 movies and one TV series (and even a Simpson’s musical) that follow after it”. Partly this is due to the prequel tag, which constrains the overall path of the story if not, in this case, the individual characters’ fates. But also because of that terrible trailer which documented the entire film in around 2½ minutes. They held nothing back. But here’s the second and much more critical problem – there was nothing to hold back. Nothing happens; other than scene after scene driving home the same points – “wow, isn’t that ape smart?” or “he’s not human, he’s an ape”. The entire film feels like the opening act of a grander story but which we’ll just have to wait to see. The filmmakers have already started talking about a potential trilogy, but there’s not even enough story here for one film. A summer tent-pole release can survive a lack of action if it has an interesting plot and engaging characters. A film can survive a lack of action or plot if it has really stunning characters. But most damaging of all – Rotpota has nothing more than a bunch of cardboard cut outs. Motivation is split between “Let’s make money” and “Must save Daddy”. Ironically, no one except Ceaser himself feels like a real human being.
As nominal lead Will Rodman, James Franco seems to be utterly uninterested in appearing in the film. As if fulfilling some contractual obligation, Franco sleepwalks from scene to scene. Admittedly, it’s difficult to act alongside CGI characters like Ceaser, but the performance capture process is supposed to alleviate much of this. And there’s no such excuse available for the lacklustre sequences between Will and Rodman Senior. John Lithgow is better as Charles but given that the majority of his scenes are alongside Franco, it’s a struggle for Lithgow to hit any strong emotional notes. Personally, I still have a problem seeing him as anything other than wacky alien Dick Solomon from 3rd Rock From the Sun fame or similar crazy characters (remember delusional Tomas Livingston; who through he was a god from Hollow Point?) – a classic case of typecasting ruining an actor. As Rodman’s girlfriend, Freida Pinto is utterly forgettable, given next to nothing to do. Brian Cox, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo get to sneer and scowl as the paper thin bad guys. Cox, a veteran of such roles, does his usual stuff with very little screen time, but the less experienced Felton and Oyelowo also capture the spirit of such caricatures; with no motivations other than to be gits. I can only guess Liev Schreiber was unavailable, as he would have fit in perfectly.
As might be expected, the standout performance of the film is Andy Serkis’s Ceaser. The leading proponent of performance capture, who was behind such creations as Gollum and King Kong, Serkis is, once again, simply brilliant. I might be at the stage where I take “Serkis is brilliant” for granted these days as he’s one of the best actors working today, period. Sure, the technological achievement shown in creating a character like Ceaser is stunning, but that’s nothing without an actor behind it all. Serkis’s transformation from simple ape to revolutionary leader in both posture and gesture is measured perfectly, and leagues ahead of all the other performances on show. It’s just a shame that such a stunning creation is wasted in such a dull movie. When we saw the trailer, Alex commented that it would have made a perfect short film to show before Planet of the Apes. Sadly, they’ve dragged that trailer out to feature length, filling the gaps with little more than shout outs to past glories and more admittedly stunning CGI. Two weeks as the US number one all but guarantees we’ll be seeing a sequel. Let’s just hope the next one actually has a story to tell.
The one “shout-out” I did notice was the painfully forced repeat of a classic line from the original. Just thinking back to it makes my toes curl.