The Astounding Mediocrity of James Franco and the Muddled Message of Planet of the Rise of the Apes
I’m not sure if my opinion is informed by having seen too many James Franco films or not enough, but I sure hate watching him in the movies. He’s a wooden, lifeless actor and I was astounded when he was nominated for Best Lead in that Mountain Dew commercial of a picture, 127 Hours. Enacting an experience that was inescapably profound and practically religious in nature, Franco managed to convey nothing that suggested an interior journey. It was actually a stunning, almost anti-performance, and it just goes to show what insane and delusional lengths Hollywood will go to in order to create a star.
I think my favorite thing that Franco ever did was that piece for the New York Times that featured 14 actors acting. Franco, boozy, wordless and looking hot in a rent-boy moustache, made out with himself in a mirror, and that worked.
But the rest of his work?
I saw Rise of the Apes on the weekend and my feelings about him only deepened. I certainly wasn’t expecting much. I just wanted to get out of the heat, have Big Hollywood wash over me and stare blankly at a screen full of Apes who were destined to take over the planet. But man alive, Franco, even amidst the swirl of CGI Apes, seemed little more than an Animatronic representation of himself, and the movie was just two hours of monkeys screaming, which wasn’t what I had in mind when I stepped into the dark box of the theatre.
Undeniably smart, even slick, the movie was a polished and emotionally disconnected production that made me yearn for the original series and Lord help me, even the Tim Burton offering back in 2001.
That movie, if you’ll recall, starred Mark Wahlberg.
There is perhaps nobody on the planet, be it populated by Apes or otherwise that has the capacity to be as flat an actor as Wahlberg. When he’s cast properly, he’s a genius, but miscast, he’s even worse than Franco, which is pretty damn bad. And playing alongside him in this movie was non-acting supermodel Estella Warren. In portraying a kind of empowered, post-feminist version of the mute, sexpot slave of the original, she somehow managed to make caveman bikinis about as much of a turn-on as government worker with a bus pass hanging from around his neck.
At any rate, what I hoped to see in both remakes was an adult amplification of the original. The tone Planet of the Apes was really just an extended version of an episode of “The Twilight Zone,” and I wanted to see it morph into a truly horrifying, even traumatic film. The Apes would be manic, vacillating wildly between a proto-human civility and brutal, primal rage. They’d rip limbs off of humans, devour them in bloody fistfuls and have crazy monkey sex! The tension would have been unbelievable, but the reboots were kept family friendly, the sort of summer fare that would move product and reach the largest demographic.
The most recent Ape film chose to bring realism to the franchise, which in my mind was completely missing the point. The creation myth surrounding Planet of the Apes doesn’t have to be intellectually credible, it just needs to be a trippy freak-out. Not understanding why things were the way they were was part of the disorienting brilliance of it.
At heart, I guess I hate the idea of prequels, seeing the majority of them as superfluous cash grabs that are just tacked-on to an already completed work of art.
No matter, that’s a big topic and all I will say is that seeing Rise of the Apes and feeling wholly emotionally disconnected from the experience, made me nostalgic for the original and so I popped in an old VHS of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. It turned out to be a pretty crappy movie, actually, but it was sincerely weird and unsettling, more like a fever than a film experience. A mutant race of radiation-scarred humans lived underground and worshipped the bomb! They wore liturgical cloaks and in a bloodless, zombie-like way intoned sung prayers that transported me back in time to my brief and joyless experience in the Anglican church as a child.
It’s probably fair to say that I grew up in a Post-Christian culture as the dominant influences acting upon my peers and I were populist and humanistic in nature rater than religious. Nobody I knew ever spoke about their religious beliefs, and if one were to do so, they would have been considered weird, and weird in a much more sincere way that say Goths or Punks. At our high school a Christian Club existed, but there were only a few people in it, typically introverted immigrant children who had yet to figure out where the mainstream lay.
My family was nominally Anglican, and for one or two years we made a go of attending the local church, which was an activity I hated immediately and with great sincerity. For the life of me, I could not understand why I had to get up early on Sunday morning, dress-up in an obvious misrepresentation of who I was and spend an hour in spooky building that was as dark, tense and quiet as a coffin. There were barbaric depictions of a man hammered into a cross all over the place and a funereal sobriety that suffocated any possibility of pleasure.It was utterly mystifying to me and I saw my forced attendance as a punishment for an unknown crime.
And whenever I tried to figure out what was going on and asked a question, I was sharply hushed.
“Who wrote The Bible?”
“Has anybody ever seen God? “
“Is praying to him like writing to Santa?”
“The Devil has horns and lives in fire with bad people while the good people get wings and live on clouds? Why don’t they fly back to Earth?
“Why do we have to be so quiet?”
“For. The. Last. Time. Michael. BE QUIET!”
The church basement where Sunday school took place was cold and smelled of old people and candles. You weren’t allowed to play with other children and just sat there listening to weird Bible stories that never seemed to have a clear moral lesson. I got so much more out of comic books and movies like Star Wars or Planet of the Apes, where concepts of Good and Evil were conveyed with much greater clarity and relevance than the ambiguities of the antique fables we heard from the Bible.
For many of us, inspiration, moral instruction and spiritual comfort comes not from that which is rigidly contained within an ancient book, but by the culture that encircles the world in which we live. And this means pop culture, which constantly churns, reinvents and reinterprets our foundational myths, forming the modern Bible by which we live. When Planet of the Apes is remade and we see Caesar rising up against his creator, we feel the biblical echo of Lucifer rebelling against God, but in a contemporary vernacular that sparks imagination and debate, leading us from the past and helping us evolve into the waiting future.