A film review by Craig J. Koban August 10, 2011


2011, PG-13, 105 mins.


Will Rodman: James Franco / Caroline: Freida Pinto / Mr. Rodman: John Lithgow / John Landon: Brian Cox / Dodge Landon: Tom Felton

Directed by Rupert Wyatt / Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a real oddball film: it’s not really a remake of the fourth film in the original five film series, 1972’s CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, nor is it ostensibly a sequel or prequel to the much critically maligned 2001 Tim Burton re-imagining of the classic 1968 original.  Moreover, no real knowledge of the events of either the original series of films or Burton’s are essentially required to enjoy this new effort, even though there are very, very subtle, blink-or-you’ll-miss-it references to the very first PLANET OF THE APES.   

No, this new retooled tale of damn, dirty, and highly intelligent and evolved simians is more like the very recent STAR TREK and CASINO ROYALE films in the sense that it reboots another 60’s born franchise.   The core elements are still somewhat the same as CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (a super smart talking ape named Caesar leads an uprising against the humans that rule over him and his ape brothers as slave masters), but RISE OF THE APES takes those ingredients and mixes them all together to form a stylish, inventive, fun, and thoroughly exciting summer blockbuster diversion that winks and acknowledges the old films (while wisely avoiding Burton’s version) without feeling like a slave to their deeply entrenched storylines and characters.  What this does is successfully breathe new life into what really has been a comatose film series for nearly 40 years, which is not as easy as it sounds. 

For my money, nothing will top the freshness, novelty, and shock value of the Chuck Heston ’68 original (which still contains one of the greatest twist endings in film history), nor did any of the subsequent films in the series – this new retooled APES picture included – capture that film’s socio-political and satirical leanings.  RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES does not emerge as an equally invigorating and audacious work of speculative science fiction of evolution gone horribly afoul, but it almost matches the classic entry in terms of being allegorical.  Whereas the early films were concerned with being cautionary warnings about the then ever-expanding nuclear age, this new APES flick is more like an animal rights/cruelty expose morphed with the iconic accouterments of the prison break film.  RISE OF THE APES may not be as thematically rich as it could have been, but its strong marriage of emotionally strong character dynamics, cutting edge visual effects and tastefully innovative direction do make for one nifty thrill ride. 

The film’s script also has patience and precision when it comes to laying out the particulars of establishing what leads to an all-out ape versus mankind apocalypse.  We are introduced to an intrepid, head strong, and ambitious scientist named Will (James Franco) that has been trying for years to fast track a cure for Alzheimer’s, which is a personal quest for him (his father, played by John Lithgow, suffers from the aliment and is hitting rock bottom).  Of course, the corporation he works for is all about making money first and foremost, but Will is less interested in wealth and prosperity and is more concerned with curing his father.  Like all great medical breakthroughs, Will does stumble upon a cure, so to speak, which manages to make his chimp subjects unusually intelligent, but as a deeply negative consequence it can be deadly if exposed to non-Alzheimer patients.   

Will does secretly test the drug on his father, which initially proves the be the ultimate cure for his disease, that is until he suffers a harsh rebound effect and returns to his pre-drugged state.  While Will continues his research, he finds himself befriended and then raising one of his lab’s chimps named Caesar (played…kind of…by Andy Serkis, with many, many layers of CGI artificiality masked over him).  During one fateful day Animal Control swoops in to take Caser away from Will after he made attempts to defend Will's father with nearly fatal results.  When Caesar is placed in the “ape sanctuary” he discovers that it’s run with a brutal, dictatorial iron fist by John Landon (Brian Cox, who’s mere appearance alone within seconds of the film tips off that he’s playing the villain) and his son, Dodge (HARRY POTTER's bad boy-wizard Tom Felton).  Unbeknownst to Landon, Caesar is the smartest chimpanzee ever and he begins to amass a loyal following from fellow imprisoned chimps, apes, and orangutans alike.  With his new army, Caesar decides to strike back and that’s when the story goes absolutely...ahem...ape-shit. 

One thing that I noticed right away with RISE OF THE APES is how understatedly crisp and clean the direction is by Rupert Wyatt, a young Brit with a bright future ahead of him.  He manages to bring considerable flair and elegance to the most potentially mundane of sequences, such as one instance where he lets what appears to be his virtual camera swoop in and out alongside Caesar swinging through Will’s home, or another virtuoso sequence where he shows the aging of Caesar from infancy to adulthood with some truly imaginative dissolves and cuts.  He also has a real knack for framing the heavy action sequences in a clear and unobtrusive manner that too many other summer blockbusters can’t muster (ahem, Michael Bay).  Just consider the film’s most exhilarating sequence showing the climax of apes trashing through downtown San Francisco that eventually segues to the Golden Gate Bridge, during which Caesar and company decimate their way through police officers, barricades, and helicopters alike.  This might be one of the very few action films, like AVATAR, where you truly root for all the non-human players to attain ultimate victory over their Homo-sapien oppressors. 

The film’s real star is its remarkable CGI artifice.  Gone is the rubberized makeup that typified all other previous films and instead we get the go-to man when it comes to motion capture performance, Andy Serkis (who helped make THE LORD OF THE RINGS' Gollum and KING KONG) and the fusion of his body movements with the artistry of Weta Digital.  Caesar becomes a fully realized and relatable creation as a result, a once docile and obedient chimp that triumphantly emerges as a fiercely militant and charismatic leader, and all through what amounts to a mostly (emphasis on mostly) dialogue-free performance.  What Serkis and the CGI artisans do so resoundingly well is to evoke Caesar’s overreaching character arc with body language, glances, facial expressions, and behavior nuance.  It’s as powerful and persuasive as any attempt at cross pollinating performance art with computer fakery that I’ve seen, and it’s no wonder that that this chimp steals the show. 

Unfortunately, this embellishes the weaknesses of the film, which is the fact that its human characters are not that interesting.  Franco is serviceable at best; not exactly as dull and wooden as he was hosting this year’s Oscars, but he’s essentially phoning it in here.  The utterly gorgeous and sumptuously photogenic Frieda Pinto is here for window dressing purposes as Will’s veterinarian girlfriend and not much more.  The other characters are just clichéd cardboard cut-outs: Cox plays the vile and reprehensible animal control handler (he’s on pure autopilot) as his Tom Felton as his almost sub-humanly cruel, ape-hating son.   Beyond that, you also know that the corporate-centric moneyman behind Will’s research (played blandly by David Oyelowo) that shows so little humanity towards apes in his quest for making a buck will most assuredly get his just desserts from Caesar and his legion. 

There are other issues too, like the fact that the film seems to lack a real ending, which is disappointing after its mesmerizing climax (it has a nastily tacked on end-credits sequence that hints at a larger conclusion that should have been a part of the film).  And even though I liked the shout-outs to the original films (Charlton Heston even makes a cameo…sort of) I could have really did without Draco Falfoy uttering two of the most iconic of Heston’s lines from PLANET OF THE APES, which gets more eye rolls and unintentional laughs than it should have.   

No matter, because the sum of RISE OF THE APES’ good parts succeeds on their own.  More lively, compelling, and innovative than Burton’s 2001 entry into the APES filmscape and more thoroughly character driven and emotionally complex than many of the original 1970's APES sequels, RISE OF THE APES is far better than many of you - myself included - were probably expecting.  The underlining story is, to take a page out of Heston’s vernacular, a thematic madhouse - A MADHOUSE! – but the film demonstrates how just the right wily resourcefulness can take a long dormant film series and recalibrate it for fresh new consumption. 

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