Going into 2011, James Franco seemed to be poised for greatness. With an Oscar nomination for 127 Hours coming, and critical accolades for Howl, Franco finally seemed to have hit the mark when it comes to establishing himself as a dramatic actor. Hosting the Oscars as well, Franco seemed to be at that point when many actors go from being merely popular to being movie stars.
Past the halfway mark in 2011, Franco was left clapping for Colin Firth in The King’s Speech on Oscar night and declared perhaps the worst host in Oscar history would seem to be a low light in any actor’s resume. Unfortunately the only lower highlight for Franco in 2011 after Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be to pull a Hugh Grant with the LAPD. How so?
He gets out acted by a CGI chimpanzee in every aspect of the game.
A prequel to Charlton Heston’s Planet of the Apes, this is an origin story for how the apes ended up taking over the planet. It starts with Will Rodman (Franco), a scientist trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. His father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease, heightening his urgency to perfect the drug he’s working on. When a potential cure seems to work for a particular chimp but winds up going awry, he winds up bringing home her off-spring (played in motion-capture by Andy Serkis). At first it’s only temporary, looking to place the chimpanzee in an ape refuge. But when the ape shows a higher level of intelligence than even a human being of the same age and development, and he bonds with it, things become more emotional for the scientist.
When the beast’s inner animal comes out, Caesar gets placed into an ape refuge with a number of animals who were not as intelligent or as passive as Caesar (who hadn’t been around his own kind, ever). As Will develops another drug further along which proves lethal to humans but extraordinary to apes, his former house guest finds life a bit harder than living in the attic. Hardened by the horrors of his prison, like an ape version of Shawshank, Caesar leads an ape revolt.
And this is really two separate films. There’s a brilliant character study involving Caesar losing his innocence and becoming the ape he is fated to. And then there are a handful of human beings trying to melodramatically cure a horrible disease.
The former is absolutely fascinating. Credit has to go to Andy Serkis, who plays the ape in motion capture, for a remarkably brilliant performance without dialogue. Forced to just use his eyes and his body language, Serkis does more with less than most actors can. It’s absolutely amazing what he does; this is the sort of performance the Academy ought to recognize for Best Supporting Actor but probably won’t. Without Caesar’s transformation from an innocent to someone whose heart has hardened, the film’s finale wouldn’t have any weight at all. It’s all from Serkis, too, as the finale would have no emotional resonance without it.
And that falls squarely on Franco’s shoulders. The film is a two man play with Franco and Serkis; Franco getting blown off the screen as an actor to a CGI chimp has to be a lowlight in a year filled with them. He brings no emotional heft to a role that demands it. Franco doesn’t have good genre chops when he has to play it straight; his last strong performance in a genre in a film was in Pineapple Express playing comedic relief. He’s the weak link here and the film suffers for it. The film would have an exceptional emotional heft if Franco provides a brilliant dramatic performance; he doesn’t and the film’s finale doesn’t quite resonate.
But he’s not the only one. It’s as if the storyline involving Caesar was written brilliantly and anything involving a human was given short-shrift. The film when it handles the ape-related storyline is immersive and fascinating. With the human element it becomes evident that the film really isn’t needed and feels unnecessary.
Director: Rupert Wyatt Notable Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, Andy Serkis Writer(s): Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Scott Sawitz is an Inside Pulse original. He's also been featured on The Ultimate Fighter.com, Fox Sports.com, Nerdcore Movement.com, CagePotato.com, Inside Fights.com and Film Arcade.net (among others). When Scott isn't writing about film he's making his own. Check out Drunk Justice Productions right here.