Saturday, August 13, 2011

New Release Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes had no right being this good. When I first heard of the premise, I balked a little. It seemed like another attempt to re-charge the franchise following Tim Burton’s lacklustre re-make of the 1968 original, Planet of the Apes. Ever wondered how the world depicted in this franchise came to be? You could watch the similarly premised, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) or check out this magnificent film. I became intrigued when I heard that the apes were to be created through motion-capture, but the film’s release snuck up on me, equipped with an average trailer and a terrible promotional poster. 

I feel a little bit ashamed, because I didn’t give this film a chance at all. With a title like that, it was difficult. Then came the flood of positive reviews, and I felt I had to see if for myself. For a summer blockbuster it has surprising intelligence, and it is far more compelling than most films I have seen this year. It has it all. Much like another recent release about a chimp (the wonderful documentary, Project Nim) this is an examination of the exploitation of nature for the benefits of science, and in-turn favouring the nurture of a wild animal over is natural upbringing. It also works as a grand prison escape, and an intellectual and calculated mass overthrow of power. It features outstanding visual effects, assured direction from a man with so little experience, a sensational climactic action sequence on the San Francisco Bridge and a stellar performance from Andy Serkis, which is easily one of the best of the year.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a San Francisco scientist who has been trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by testing a genetically engineered retrovirus on chimpanzees. The virus mutates the chimpanzees, giving them a considerably heightened level of intelligence. Rodman believes his invention is ready for use on humans and tries to convince his boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), to fund the next stage of the testing, but the rampage of one of his test chimpanzees interrupts this very board meeting. Despite being a female trying to protect her secretly newborn baby, she is killed, and Jacobs orders the rest of the chimpanzees to be put down. 

Rodman’s colleague, Franklin (Tyler Labine), cannot bring himself to kill the baby. He hands him over to Will, who names him Caesar and takes him home and raises him, along with his Alzheimer’s suffering father, Charles (John Lithgow), like a child. Having inherited his mother’s intelligence, Caesar (Andy Serkis) learns very quickly. But as he grows into an adult his natural animalistic tendencies begin to emerge; and he begins to grow instinctive and violent. Following an incident where he tries to protect Charles from their confrontational neighbour, he is sent to a primate facility run by John Landon (Brian Cox). While the facility looks like the perfect sanctuary for the chimpanzees to bond and flourish together; the sinister imprisonment and the malicious treatment by Landon's son, Dodge (Tom Felton), results in Caesar desiring to overthrow their security and lead an uprising.

Initially, Caesar (who enters the facility clothed) is not met with respect from the other apes, but after befriending and conversing in sign with a circus Orang-utan, his heightened intelligence soon becomes known to the others. For a large part of the film there is a complete absence of dialogue as Caesar discovers the full extent of his intelligence and finds devious way to escape his cell, and converse with the other apes through the sign language. As the breakout unfolds, a reformed and more powerful version of Rodman's retrovirus is being tested on more chimpanzees, but unknown to Jacobs, human contact will prove fatal. The climactic sequences, the result of superb pacing throughout the story, are extraordinary. Led by Caesar, the apes terrorise San Francisco, releasing the apes at the medical facility and those at the San Francisco Zoo, culminating in their calculated assault on a police blockade on the San Francisco Bridge in their attempts to reach their desired sanctuary, the Redwood Forest.

Unlike all prior entries in the Apes franchise (which used actors in costumes and make-up), the apes in this film are created digitally by Weta Digital (the ace team behind The Lord of the Rings Trilogy, King Kong and Avatar) using motion capture. The apes look sensational and collectively still seem to have a uniqueness about them. Some of the prominent characters (most notably the Orang-utan and the Gorilla) are given amazing personalities. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar is sublime. As the heart and soul of the film he is such a complex character. While the premise of an ape being able to outsmart humans and lead a revolution seems preposterous, not for a moment do we question anything he does. The tragic friendship between Caesar and Will is also strengthened by a couple of great moments between the two.

It really is a pity that Franco's performance isn't more compelling. The films key weakness is the human characters. I guess you can forgive Franco because he would have been acting alongside Serkis in his motion-capture suit, but he really seems disinterested in his role. This is becoming a bit of a trend with his work, and is a shame to see. We all know he can act (127 Hours) but this seemed to be another phoned-in performance. There were scenes that were still genuinely moving, but no one matches Serkis in any of the scenes. Tom Felton was basically playing Draco Malfoy again, and Freida Pinto as Will's love interest served absolutely no purpose.

Technically, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an impressive achievement. It effectively utilizes wonderful visual effects, innovative photography from Andrew Lesnie (the scenes of the apes swinging through the tree tops are beautifully captured) and calculated editing to really heighten the pace in the second half. Another feature I want to commend is Patrick Doyle's score. Every scene was given that extra level of excitement by Doyle's work. Due to the absence of dialogue, it serves an important function accompanying the action, and I thought he delivered beautifully. 

This film also has a ton of heart. As much as we find it abhorrent to see humanity fall to apes, we are all for Caesar in this film. In much the same way as the original film twisted our perceptions of the alien ‘other’ (forcing us to relate more to a talking ape than a feral human), we don’t especially dislike the humans in this film; but what it so successfully does is force us to feel emotionally connected to Caesar. This film came out of nowhere, and it was a real surprise. This is a genuinely intelligent blockbuster that is captivating from start to finish. At a relatively taut 107 minutes, the exposition is out of the way early and allows the film to explore its intriguing central character. With the exception of the '68 original, I haven't seen the other films in the original Planet of the Apes franchise. My understanding is that the sequels aren't that great. This is a damn good film, and one I would be happy to re-visit again and again. 

My Rating: 4 Stars (B+)


  1. I really need to go out and see this one. Wish I was back home and caught the press screening.

    Nice review Andy.

  2. Ok, now I'm in consideration of seeing this but maybe with another movie around the same time as a double feature so I can pay for two movies for the price of one.

  3. i am still a big fan of the original sequence of films. the way the budgets got slashed for each new sequel would never happen now but they were still enjoyable ideas. i'm gonna have to see this one but with a much more open mind than i currently have towards it. i can't help but make comparisons to the original stories.

    the original novel by pierre boulle is a fantastic piece of science fiction that none of the movies have gotten close to.

    it certainly looks impressive and you are another voice in the masses of positive reviews, so fingers crossed.

  4. Nice review. Good commentary on the human performances. Franco was a let down and Pinto was just eye candy.

  5. Great Review! I wasn't actually expecting to be as moved as I did from this material but Serkis just really channeled the inner ape within him, and nails this perfect motion-capture performance as Caesar. I also sure as hell hope that he doesn't get snubbed as well. He already did for LOTR!

  6. @ Sam - It's definitely worth a look!

    @ Steven - Do you have that option in the States? Go to the cinema and check out two films for the price of one? That's a pretty sweet deal.

    @ Toby - I understand that the novel would be a great read, but I have only seen the 68' original. I didn't care for Burton's re-make, but this is a genuinely good film. It's a real surprise. Give it a go if you get the chance.

    @ Robert - Cheers. Yeah, Franco was weak, unfortunately. I didn't mind John Lithgow's performance, but they could have cast anyone in the role that Brian Cox played.

    @ Dan - Serkis was outstanding. A perfect performance. I hope he gets a nom.

  7. No, what I do is pay $6 (morning fee) to go one screening. Stay in the theater and sneak into another room to see a different film.

  8. I see! Nice work haha. If Senna is playing at your cinema, you gotta go!

  9. I've heard so many good things about this flick. But, like you, I haven't really given this a chance. Mainly because of the title, and this really cheesy looking trailer that made it look like a romance between Franco and the ape. Anyway, I won't get a chance to see it in the cinemas (still gotta con my way into the film festival), but I'm really looking forward to the DVD release!

  10. This could hopefully be Serkis' year. If not his performance cap performances are getting less likely to be rewarded as his next role is considerably smaller.