Theatrical Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dr. Will Rodman is developing a super-drug call ALZ-112 with the hopes of being able to cure Alzheimer’s Disease.  He’s driven by the fact that his father, Charles Rodman, a once brilliant man, is now suffering from the disease.  Will Rodman tests his drug on a chimpanzee that has been named Bright Eyes and the results are remarkable,  The chimp’s intellect and understanding have increased dramatically.  Steven Jacobs, the head of the company that Rodman works , GenSys, is convinced of the huge profit potential of the drug and wants Rodman to proceed further, with Rodman now suggesting that they move on to human tests.

As the drug is being presented to the executive board of GenSys, Bright Eyes starts to display very aggressive tendencies, eventually running amok through the company.  It’s believed that this was a dramatic side effect of ALZ-112, but in the aftermath and unbeknownst to Jacobs, Bright Eyes was protecting her offspring.  Jacobs has ordered that all of the apes who have been treated with ALZ-112 be put down, but Rodman manages to get the baby chimp out of the company.

The intelligence that Bright Eyes displayed has been passed to her son and now the chimp, who has been named Caesar, is secretly being raised by Rodman in his home…

That’s the opening premise to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Fox’s latest attempt to rebuild it’s classic franchise from the late 60s and the early 70s.  This film attempts to take aspects of Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and build a new cohesive whole.  I’ve heard some describe this as a prequel, when really it’s more of a re-imaging.  When the original Planet of the Apes first came out, the studios weren’t as pre-occupied with turning films into continuing franchises as they are now.  The huge success of the original movie took everyone by surprise and so long-turn plans weren’t even a part of it’s initial release.

Now, I’m a huge fan of the series.  I remember being 7 years old and being taken by my parents to see a drive-in theatre double feature of both Planet of the Apes and Beneath the Planet of the Apes and just loving both films to death (even though at that age, I was scared to death by the unveiling of the mutants in Beneath)  I eagerly watched the entire series of movies when CBS showed them to epic ratings numbers back in the 70s. I watched the subsequent live-action and animated TV series.  I used to regularly draw comic books for some smaller publishers and one of my career highlights was getting to draw a Planet of the Apes mini-series for Malibu Graphics (Blood of the Apes) back in the early 90s, so believe when I say I was very much looking forward to this, but with some trepidation.  While I tend to like what director Tim Burton did with his remake of Planet of the Apes, I’ll also be the first to tell you that’s it’s nowhere in the same league as the original film (but then the whole series, looked back on with perspective, certainly has it’s highs and lows as well).

I’m pleased to say that I enjoyed Rise of the Planet of the Apes way more than I ever anticipated, though it does have a couple of issues.  We’ll get into that shortly, but for the most part, I think that director Rupert Wyatt has done something very cool here and I hope that it gets the chance to bloom further.

After seeing the initial trailer to the movie, I was certainly intrigued enough to really want to see this.  Of course, what followed from that trailer was the outcry against the apes themselves being CGI creations, but I was certainly willing to give them their chance.  To me anyway, the CGI apes are the most successful part of the film, doing things that you just couldn’t do with live actors, but also being true to what the animals themselves can do, given the fact that these apes are all chemically enhanced.  Sequences with the apes in action are certainly obvious effects, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not enjoyable.  In fact, they’re a lot of fun, and one of the climactic scenes, with the apes in battle with police and the military across San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge is very thrilling.

Wyatt’s movie is briskly edited and has an overall terrific look.  That brisk editing though also contributes to what I see as being the biggest issue of the film from a story perspective and that’s the passage of time in the early portions of the film.  After Caesar has been revealed to us, we’re shown a series of scenes that basically cover an 8-year period which is shown in the broadest of strokes.  Once three years have passed, we’re soon introduced to a new character, Caroline Aranha, a zoologist who treats Caesar after a certain incident.  Caroline quickly becomes a love interest for Will Rodman.  Five years pass and then Rodman reveals to both Caroline and Caesar, Caesar’s true origin.  Caroline thinks it’s just wrong, but that’s it.  She still stays with Rodman despite her statement and is basically there to just move this forward.  One can’t help but wonder how Rodman kept this from Caroline for five years and given her background, you’d think that she’d be seen as more than just a romantic interest.  It’s a blown opportunity, but not necessarily damning to the movie on the whole.  Instead of breezing through this period, a few more scenes could’ve been added to help make this an even fuller story, but then that probably was seen as detrimental to the film’s pace.  It’s not as bad as the use of the passage of time in something like The Adjustment Bureau which deals entirely with a relationship with two characters through a four-year period without any real advancement or change in character over that period.  Of course, the point of the passage of time in Rise is to get us into scenes with Caesar interacting with other apes more quickly, but I don’t think it would’ve hurt the film in the slightest to have played with this 8-year period a little bit more fully than what it does.

Another aspect that bothers me a bit is the one-dimensionality of the character of Jacobs, the head of GenSys.  With the exception of one scene, he’s played with just one note and that’s just to be singularly filled with greed.  Now again, I get that, I understand why it’s being done, but Rise could’ve played with it more and maybe attempted something further with him that might’ve made him a more interesting human parallel to a character like Dr. Zaius from the original film.

I’m willing to forgive this though due to other cool aspects of the movie.  Throughout, Wyatt and the screenwriters give us some cool easter eggs (beyond the name of Bright Eyes) for fans of the series.  They also do a reasonably good job of planting the seeds for what could potentially come down the road if this new series manages to go on.  As I said above, I was very much taken with the CGI apes in the film.  These scenes are often the best parts of the movie, but there’s more to it than just being in CGI, and I’ll get into that in a moment.

The human cast is headed by James Franco playing Will Rodman.  Now personally, I was really pulling for Franco to win an Oscar for 127 Hours, I thought it was one of last year’s single best performances.  Then, his hosting of The Oscars came along and he was considered one of the roots of that debacle.  Recently, Franco has had an interview with Playboy in which he answered many questions about that, and at the same time tried to cover himself from what he (in my opinion) was seeing could be a potential panning of Rise. Some of which he’s not necessarily wrong about and I describe that above.  He delivers a serviceable performance and is certainly a sympathetic character, even with consideration for what he’s unleashed by the film’s end, but at it’s core, Rise isn’t Franco’s movie…

… it’s Andy Serkis’ film.  Serkis plays Caesar and it’s (at least from what I gather) done very much in the same way as how Serkis played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.  His performance combined with the CGI is absolutely magnetic and whenever Caesar is on screen, he takes command of the scene.  One of the scenes in the film that pays homage to a classic line from the original, is just as huge for Rise and it’s largely due to just how strong Serkis’ performance is. His Caesar is caring, cunning and vicious when needs be and it all is part of a fully realized character.  Serkis has certainly set the bar high with his previous performances in this fashion, and with Rise he raises the bar a little higher.

Freida Pinto plays Caroline and most will remember her from Slumdog Millionaire and while she’s certainly a beautiful woman, she doesn’t get that much to do here other than being “the girl” of the movie.  Again, if the passage of time had been better dealt with, she might’ve had more that she could’ve contributed, and she might have more if this continues down the road, but for Rise anyway, she’s simply a plot device and nothing more.  David Oyelowo plays Jacobs and certainly eats up the part.  I can’t really complain about what he does with the part, but as I said above, it’s a one-note character.  The cast is filled  with John Lithgow playing Will’s father, Charles and Brian Cox playing the head of a primate shelter.  Lithgow fares the better of the two, certainly getting more meat to chew on.

But really, it is Andy Serkis’ film.  Even with the problems that I have with the film, Serkis’ performance combined with the visual effects just make Rise of the Planet of the Apes a very engaging ride.  The seeds have certainly been planted to continue this beyond, and the suggestion is there that what could come next could be more in line with the original movie.  Part of me would really love to see that, but the other part really wants to see what happens in the almost immediate wake of the ending of Rise. There is huge potential in this franchise’s re-birth if given the chance, we’ll just have to see.

About Darren Goodhart

Darren Goodhart is a 44-year old St. Louis-based Graphic Designer and Illustrator (and former comic book artist) who's been seeing movies all his life, but on an almost weekly basis in theatres for the last 20 years and owns nearly 1,000 DVDs for his home theatre. He's learned a lot about film over the 20 year period, and has taken his appreciation beyond the mainstream. His favorite types of film are mostly genre entertainment, but he also enjoys a wide range of drama, action and cult-y stuff from around the world, and is currently re-discovering a love affair with lower budget exploitation and genre films from the 70s and early 80s. He doesn't try to just dismiss any film, but if there's a bias against one, he'll certainly tell you that in the space of his reviews.

07. August 2011 by Darren Goodhart
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