Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review: Wait…what? It's good?!
For the past few years there have been rumors bouncing around Hollwood that 20th Century Fox was trying to produce another Planet of the Apes film. But instead of it being a sequel to Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of the original classic, it was said to be a prequel that would set the stage for a new series. This didn’t sound like an altogether heinous idea but it definitely seemed like one of those projects that would be constantly spoken of but never actually see the light of day.
For awhile it looked like that was exactly what would happen but then all of a sudden about a year ago a relatively unknown director, Rupert Wyatt, signed on to take the lead and assembled a bizarre cast that would include James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, and that awful boy from the Harry Potter films, Tom Felton. We also learned that Gollum himself, Andy Serkis, would be playing the lead ape role of Caesar via motion capture.
Maybe I’m a cynic, but I don’t think I was alone in thinking that this was going to be a turd of a movie. The title changed during production to the the slightly cumbersome moniker of Rise of the Planet of the Apes which didn’t inspire much confidence and the trailers didn’t really impress much either beyond what looked like great special effects for the apes.
But this, ladies and gentleman, is a perfect example of not judging a book by its cover because not only is Rise of the Planet of the Apes NOT a turd, its actually pretty darn good! In fact, it is one of the most well-rounded and properly executed movies of the summer.
Set in the not-so-distant future, this prequel/remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes/reboot of the whole franchise introduces us to scientist Will Rodman (Franco) who seeks the cure for Alzheimer’s disease to help his ailing father (Lithgow). Testing his medication on apes shows great progress but the enhanced brain activity has its side effects and a freak accident caused by his main test subject forces the project to be abandoned and all test apes to be put down.
It is at this low point though that Rodman discovers an infant ape in the cage of his now deceased test subject and rather than allowing it to be put down, Rodman takes the little guy home to live with him and his father. The ape is soon named Caesar and begins to show incredible skill both mentally and physically as traits passed down from his genetically enhanced mother.
Eight years pass as Caesar matures into a powerfully full-grown and insanely intelligent ape who begins to struggle with life as just a pet despite his intense loyalty to Rodman and his sick father. After an incident with an asshole neighbor though, Caesar is forced into a life of captivity with other apes. Naturally, he hates it at first thanks to an awful handler at the facility (Felton) but he slowly gets wise to how things work and climbs the social ladder…err…tree to the top of the heap. I don’t want to spoil anything beyond that but it goes without saying that the apes don’t stay docile for long under Caesar’s command and it is not long before all hell breaks loose with an epic man vs. ape battle on the Golden Gate Bridge.
The highest praise for the movie must, without question, go to Andy Serkis and the team of animators who brought Caesar and all of the other apes to such believable life. Every character nuance is there is the eyes and facial expression so that you always know what Caesar is thinking without a single word of dialogue. And even when he does learn to master a few bits of the English language, it never feels unbelievable or false. It is simply a masterful performance created by artists at the very top of their game. There have been some rumblings that Serkis could even be in contention for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his work here and while I don’t honestly foresee the Academy taking the step of honoring someone for a motion capture performance yet, I’d be the first to sign up and say he deserves it.
The human cast is where things are a little more disappointing with simple characters that are neither memorable nor worthy of much screen time. I was initially worried about Franco in this after watching the trailers and only seeing “James Franco”, the guy who botched the Oscars and appears on General Hospital, instead of a character; but he managed to pull it off within the film and create an interesting man that is both roguishly impulsive and caring at the same time.
If there is one a major leak in the acting pool here though it is Freida Pinto. Not only is her character completely unnecessary to the plot, but her delivery of the few lines that she gets is so dull and stilted that you have to wonder if she was even awake on her days of filming. She’s a lovely girl and I’d like to see her try to tackle a role that has some actual meat on the bones, but if this is an example of her best efforts, I don’t know that we can expect much from this Slumdog.
Mediocre humans aside, Director Wyatt brings all of the story elements together nicely in a way that is both well-paced and efficient. So many summer blockbusters nowadays seem to be incapable of coming in at less than two and half hours despite rarely having enough content for even one good hour, but this one packs it all in to a tightly wrapped bundle of 105 satisfying minutes. In other words, get this guy some more high-profile gigs STAT!
Being littered with references to the original films long time fans will find a lot to smile about here but newbies will be equally impressed and entertained to see what happens when things literally start to go ape shit. The ending of the film points to an almost inevitable sequel and I will welcome it with open arms and a basket of bananas if it maintains the intelligence, heart, and sense of awe that makes this film such a sterling example of summer movie entertainment.
PS Do NOT rush out of the theater when the credits start to roll. If you do, you’ll miss a very crucial scene showing how us humans are going to get our clocks cleaned. It ain’t pretty.
Images courtesy of 20th Century Fox and IMDbPro.