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New Planet of the Apes: Monkey Biz

Rupert Wyatt's prequel, starring James Franco, showcases action over nuance

So while the film quickly sets up Rodman’s human motivations for developing the drug — his father’s dementia — his subsequent actions and reactions don’t add up. The drug restores his father’s brain processes overnight — yet Rodman doesn’t tell anyone (nor does anyone in the outside world notice that the guy who used to wander around the neighborhood aimlessly is suddenly a laser-focused genius). And three years or so later, when the drug begins to lose effectiveness, Rodman curses it as a failure. He totally ignores the fact that he has managed to push back one of the great scourges of old age — but of course, from a scriptwriter’s perspective he needs to feel that way in order for the plot to push on to the next level.

Likewise, Caesar is fine with being led around on a leash — until he isn’t, so the ape rebellion can begin in earnest.

Logistics don’t seem of major concern to the filmmakers, either. Caesar, confined to a weird kind of primate prison — a surreal facility clearly created wholly out of the writers’ imaginations — manages to break out late one night, travel untold miles to Rodman’s home, steal some brain-building serum and scamper unseen all the way back to the jailhouse before dawn. How does he do it? Through the writer’s will. Same thing with the climactic ape attack on the research lab: Hundreds, maybe thousands, of apes band together for the assault. How did the monkey reinforcements, picked up by Caesar and company at a local zoo, suddenly develop Marine-like discipline without the benefit of Rodman’s drug? Uh …

Listen, I know we’re talking about a late-summer sci-fi time-waster here. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes presents a case study of the conundrum of high-budget fantasy filmmaking. The creators have invested millions upon millions of dollars to present a hyper-real world where monkeys can, and do, take over. It’s that very realism — the uncanny human-ness of the chimps, the meticulous marriage of real and computer imagery — that makes us more aware of the writers’ laziness in storytelling, their bread-and-circuses attitude toward their audience.

The original Planet of the Apes — with Rod Serling’s sometimes too-talky script taking scholarly stabs at the notions of class and prejudice — was equally ridiculous in its conception. But we could see that Roddy McDowall and Maurice Evans were behind those rubber monkey masks. The Ape City was clearly a back-lot cutout. The transparently artificial presentation worked: At one level the film was Saturday-afternoon popcorn fodder; at another it was allegory, its presentation as rudimentary as a Greek drama.

In presenting its ape-bound world perfect in every detail, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sets itself a monkey bar so high it could be reached only if it came wrapped in a flawless, meticulously measured script. With its outrageous premise, I suspect no one could have written that— not even a roomful of chimps typing for a thousand years.

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