If proof were still needed that human beings are all but irrelevant to the Hollywood blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes provides it in spades. (And not just because one of its stars is Freida Pinto, an actress making a career of cardboard thespianism.) Constructed around the reliable premise that if you slather on the spectacle, audiences won't notice the script's idiocies -- otherwise known as the Avatar effect -- this so-called origin picture is no more than a narrative outline padded with moderately special effects, a teaser for the sequels that will surely follow.
What is less clear is whether this Project Nim for the masses is sufficiently supersized to satisfy our jaded visual appetites. Opting for James Franco over 3-D (few budgets can stretch to both), the filmmakers leave him stranded opposite blue screens and a bland veterinary love interest (Pinto), his cheeky charisma obliterated by the movie's rampaging simians. Playing Will Rodman, a San Francisco geneticist with a dementia-stricken father (John Lithgow), Franco has never been so lost: he seems to know he's being outperformed by every computer-generated chimp on screen.
Researching a drug for Alzheimer's, Will is forced to shut down his animal testing when one of his apes goes ballistic in the lab. Swiftly euthanizing the beast, he smuggles its baby out of the facility, unaware that it has inherited the drug's effects from its mother. Installed in Will's attic and answering to the name Caesar, the animal is soon exhibiting intelligence far beyond its pay grade; eight years later, looking like a 30-year-old construction worker and treated like an adoptive son, Caesar (realized in motion capture by the brilliant Andy Serkis) is using silverware and sign language and coordinating preppy separates. In other words, he's already smarter than the film's scriptwriters.
When the inevitable happens and Caesar's true nature surfaces, it's off to primate prison under the sadistic stewardship of Brian Cox and Tom Felton (reprising his Draco Malfoy scowl, perhaps because he's saddled with spouting the most iconic line from the 1968 Planet of the Apes). By the time Caesar joins forces with a circus orangutan and subdues an ugly monkey cursed with poxy skin and a milky eye, he has risen to the top of the moth-eaten pack and the stage is set for revolution.
A creature feature of disappointing stupidity -- what woman in her right mind would date a guy joined at the hip to a giant leashed ape? -- Rise of the Planet of the Apes replaces the sociopolitical underpinnings of the original film and its sequels with a limp warning about the evils of animal testing. Those early movies may look cheesy now, but the guys in the monkey suits at least gave Charlton Heston something solid to respond to. The stars of this incarnation, like the sick chimps of 28 Days Later, are just barreling balls of unspecified quadruped fury, swarming over the Golden Gate Bridge and tossing manhole covers like discuses. For all we know they could be protesting the lack of primate roles on network television.
Directed by an overwhelmed Rupert Wyatt (the talented force behind the tiny gem The Escapist), Rise is most memorable for its uncanny ability to breathe life into Caesar. Evincing more visible intelligence than any of his human costars aside from Lithgow, Caesar is disquietingly lifelike. Yet this very success may also be the film's most alienating feature, and I am grateful to the colleague at the screening I attended who reminded me of the phenomenon known as the "uncanny valley." Coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe our revulsion to replicas that look almost -- but not quite -- human, the phenomenon looms larger with each new generation of computer effects. Ten years ago, as the nonhuman in AI: Artificial Intelligence, a flesh-and-blood boy broke our hearts; it remains to be seen whether the reverse can do the same. Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.