It’s not the worst movie ever made. In fact, it’s pretty good. Much better than I expected. It has its problems, and I’m still not entirely convinced that it needed to exist in the first place, but now that it does, it’s probably worth checking out. It does not start well, though.
The first scene in the movie is an ape-poaching sequence. It’s not terrible, but it’s also pretty pointless and doesn’t really connect that solidly with the rest of the film. It’s not until the second sequence in the film that the bad really gets horrible. I’m going to quote, from memory, some dialogue from the script. It’s approximate, but I think you’ll be able to see why it’s so bad.
JAMES FRANCO: Cliché.
BOSS WHO SEEMS REASONABLE BUT IS REALLY EVIL: Cliché?
JAMES FRANCO: Cliché.
BOSS WHO SEEMS REASONABLE BUT IS REALLY EVIL: Cliché.
JAMES FRANCO: Cliché. Science cliché.
BOSS WHO SEEMS REASONABLE BUT IS REALLY EVIL: Cliché.
JAMES FRANCO: Cliché. Cliché!
Yeah, but from these inauspicious beginnings, the film slowly starts to reverse itself. Interestingly, and perhaps appropriately, it doesn’t really right itself until Caesar (which, without getting into details, is basically James Franco’s pet ape) grows up and starts to demonstrate his real intelligence. The special effects of the film are getting a lot of buzz. In particular, Andy Serkis’s motion-capture performance as Caesar is even being mentioned as a potential Oscar nominee. Not all of the effects are perfect, but those folks over at Weta Digital know where their bread is buttered, and so the really important parts are done extremely well.
One of the problems with the film is that once Caesar begins to gain his independence, the human side of the story becomes less important. By the end of the film, the humans really don’t have much to do. Oh sure, there are a couple human villains, but James Franco, for example, doesn’t really have much to do once you get to the midpoint of the film. A lot of the human side characters are never really given much to do, even though some are played by really good actors.
The thing I like about the movie is that the film doesn’t quite succumb to the traps that are set up early in the movie. For instance, without getting into specifics, the Apes and humans aren’t really at war. There is one really fantastic action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge, and there are some “villains” among the humans, but for the most part, there isn’t a full scale war here. The apes aren’t out for revenge and they’re surprisingly restrained and reasonable.
In the end, there are some real clunkers in the dialogue, and there are some plot holes and really major, groan-inducing clichés, but the film manages to overcome them. It ends much stronger than it begins, which is actually a nice change of pace. I feel like a lot of movies start well and fall apart in the second or third act. This is a film that starts poorly, but gets better, leaving you with a good feeling at the end. It’s definitely worth a watch, but maybe as a matinee or DVD. I’ve got some more spoilertastic comments in the extended entry, for those that have already seen it.
Here be the spoilers:
- I think a lot of Hollywood movies would get at least 13% better if they’d just cut out some of the dialogue. In this movie, there’s a really fantastic sequence involving James Franco’s father, played by John Lithgow. The first time we see Lithgow, we hear him attempting to play Claude Debussy’s Claire De Lune on the piano. It’s a great piece, and Lithgow’s character is clearly having trouble playing it. It’s a great way to establish that Lithgow, a musician, is suffering from the effects of Alzheimer’s. Then, when the movie breaks into Cliché 34 and Franco (illegally) gives Lithgow the experimental drug treatment he’s been working on, we get another great sequence where Franco wakes up and hears Lithgow playing the piano… but this time, he’s not having any trouble. What a wonderful way to establish that the drug worked! Then the script goes and ruins it, as Lithgow exclaims “I’m not sick anymore!” Completely unnecessary.
- So when Franco realizes that the experimental drug isn’t aggressive enough and that his dad’s sickness will return, he admits to his boss (who was understandably dismissive of the project due to an event at the beginning of the movie) that he gave the drug to his father and that he needs to make some tweaks to the formula. The boss is, again, reasonably dismissive of the idea. The project is dead, and so on. They talk for a while, Franco says something, the boss says no, but then Franco says something else, and the boss turns on a dime. No, that doesn’t quite explain how quickly the boss changes tune here. The Grinch? Scrooge? Their transformations are downright slow compared to this guy. Even funnier, it’s like Franco and the boss have reversed roles. The boss is now reckless and Franco is now conservative. Crazy.
- So Malfoy is in the movie, and he’s terrible. Well, I shouldn’t say that. His character is terrible and poorly written. He’s also given the Charlton Heston references. I’m not sure if they were just ill-advised references or if Malfoy’s performance is just really bad, but they were a bad idea. I guess the “Madhouse!” one kinda works, but the “Take Your Stinkin’ Paws Off Me You Damn Dirty Ape” line is really awful.
- Not all references to the original are as ham-fisted though. In particular, I’m curious about the mission to Mars that is playing in the background of a few scenes. We see a ship launching and we hear a news clip talking about a manned mission to Mars, then we see a newspaper that says “Lost in Space”. I presume this is a reference to the original Planet of the Apes – basically that Charlton Heston was on that trip to Mars and ends up in the future, etc… I haven’t seen the original in a while though, so I don’t remember if it exactly fits. If so, it makes for an interesting touch, but I’m not sure if this movie really fits with the continuity of the existing series, which kinda has its own prequels built in…
- The sequence that happens after the credits start is awesome and actually kinda clever. What’s really fascinating is that it fits in with a book I finished recently called Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond. I have my problems with that book, but there are some really astute ideas in the book, one of which is the role germs play in conquest. Let me back up a minute. One of the things that Diamond contends is that the reason Eurasia dominated the rest of the world is because of the number of domesticated plant and animal species in Eurasia. This domestication lead to increased food production and storage, which allowed people to specialize in other things, which gave rise to cities. All of this gave rise to certain diseases as well, and when Eurasians began to expand to other continents, they brought their diseases with them. For example, North America had native peoples, but not much in the way of domesticated plants or animals, so you didn’t get specialists or, more importantly diseases. When the Europeans arrived in the New World, they brought their diseases, which spread throughout North America uncontrollably. We hear a lot in America about how we mistreated the Native Americans, and we did, but the real killer was mostly unintentional. Diamond estimates that there were 20 million Native Americans and that 19 million of them were unintentionally killed by disease. The remaining 5% are all we really hear about though. This is a drastic simplification of Diamond’s book, but I think you can see my point. The thing that I found interesting about the credits sequence of this movie is that it’s basically doing the same thing. In this movie, the Apes aren’t going to hunt down and kill all the humans, but their disease will…
And I think that just about covers it…