I don’t think anyone would’ve blamed us for being a bit cautious when stepping into Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it was released back in 2011. Our foray into this world was Tim Burton’s reboot, Planet of the Apes, back in 2001. The film made a bit of money but it was mostly viewed as a bungled mess and any plans to carry on with a sequel to that project was scrapped because of the lukewarm reception by critics and fans alike. The original Planet of the Apes released back in 1968 is considered a classic of the genre. Its depiction of man versus nature, and what happens when man doesn’t respect nature, is expertly told and provides a solid sci-fi backdrop to tell a more poignant story. This is something that Tim Burton’s 2001 effort lacked but imagine my surprise when Rise of the Planet of the Apes defied expectations and not only provided an entertaining experience but also told a truly emotional story that would set the tone for an even better follow up in 2014.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is positioned as a prequel to the 1968 original. In the film, we are to learn what events transpired that lead us to the events of that film. It also stands alone as a sort of alternate story so it doesn’t alienate moviegoers who haven’t seen that film. It rides a pretty fine line between these two story elements but it does so with the greatest of ease. If you’re a fan of the original, you’ll see things here that will make you recall it. If you’re coming in fresh, you’ll find a story that is equal parts intriguing and fascinating.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells of the origins of an apocalypse. It’s not really the whole story. Some may be concerned by how the film simply stops but it’s clear that it’s setting up an even bigger story. It does what any franchise starter should do. It sets up the universe, gives us a few characters we want to see more of, and leaves us wanting more. The is assembled from bits and pieces hijacked from the 1968 original and its various follow-ups. For those familiar with the franchise, this is all setup. For those who have never heard of Planet of the Apes, it’s a reasonable jumping-off point and a good one at that.
The main plot involves a substance designed to help the brain repair itself that gives rise to a super-intelligent chimpanzee, who leads an ape uprising. Trying to fast-track development of a cure for Alzheimer’s, which afflicts his ailing father (John Lithgow), Will (James Franco) cuts through red-tape and ends up with a deadly combination: a drug that boosts the intelligence of lab chimps but creates a fatal virus in humans. An accident allows the virus to get into the general population, but that development is left in the background until the end credits. Meanwhile, Will, along with his girlfriend, primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto), raises baby chimp Caesar (Andy Serkis) to adulthood. Aggressive acts lead to Caesar being confined in an “ape sanctuary” with hundreds of other chimps, orangutans, and gorillas, where he suffers cruelty at the hands of the men who run the place, John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son, Dodge (Tom Felton). In this environment, Caesar begins to assemble his army. The description suggests the ape in question Caesar, has evil intentions but this is not the case. He develops a healthy connection with scientist Will Rodman who raises Caesar while developing the substance. Rodman begins to see that Caesar is more than just an experiment or a means to an end but the intentions of others taint everything and the inherent evil in man becomes more obvious to Caesar, which leads to the uprising in question.
I have to commend director Rupert Wyatt for maintaining solid interest throughout because the film is a bit of a slow burn. There isn’t a ton of action until the climax but the ideas and theories presented throughout the film hold our interest. The evolution of Caesar is a wonder to behold and he ends up being more developed than any of his human counterparts. If there is one detriment to the film is that the human characters aren’t all that interesting. They’re played capably by the actors but a lot of them feel like filler. The real star is Caesar and the film is near perfect whenever he’s on screen.
That isn’t to say that the action isn’t well handled. The climatic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge between humans and apes is a pure spectacle and more than makes up for the more plot-driven first two acts we endured up to this point. The special effects are top notch enough that we never really feel like we’re looking at effects. They’re virtually seamless and the lifelike nature of the Apes is the main reason the action works so well. It raises the level of tension and the battles between the apes and the humans feel real. The composition of the film is beautiful and there are several scenes that are simply majestic to behold. The first shot of the camera diving into the African jungle is just one example of how sleek and visually arresting the film truly is.
The argument has been made that Andy Serkis doesn’t deserve some kind of Oscar consideration for his work. From Gollum to King Kong, he has proven that his motion capture work is more than just a special effect. He has to interact with the actors to generate the emotions necessary to buy the scene. In this film (and especially its sequel) Serkis is the emotional centerpiece. Caesar isn’t a special effect. He’s flesh and blood and the fact that Serkis makes you believe this fact is a testament to his ability. The other actors are fine but they’re just not particularly interesting. James Franco gives a standard performance but nothing more. I will say his chemistry with Caesar is palpable at times but his role only really clicks when they’re in scenes together. Freida Pinto is also fine but is largely underused and Brian Cox brings his typical sleaze to his role but he’s done this before and it’s clearly not a challenge. Harry Potter’s Tom Felton is also on deck proving that graduating from Hogwarts did nothing to make him a nicer person.
Some will be frustrated by Rise of the Planet of the Apes because it doesn’t feel like a complete motion picture. It’s clearly setting up something bigger but it’s still an intriguing start and makes you want to dive into this world wholeheartedly. Considering what came next, this film clearly delivered on its promise and it deserves all the credit for doing that.
Reel Talk gives Rise of the Planet of the Apes 3.5 Reels