Theatrical Review: Oddly compelling and resonant, this prequel reboot of the iconic sci-fi franchise really shouldn’t work as well as it does or be as much fun as it is. But despite plot problems and serious struggles with simian silliness, Rise of the Planet of the Apes somehow winds up as thrilling summer entertainment.
Things go wrong in on the project (the San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company he works at has such laughable lab security, you fully expect to see Adam Sandler heading it), and Will ends up sneaking home a cute baby CGI chimp whose brain power has been genetically enhanced.
You can guess where things go from there. The chimp, Caesar, (his name’s a direct nod to the Che-like simian revolutionary in Rise’s thematic cousin, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes) gets bigger and smarter, but also more aggressive and protective.
Will’s father (John Lithgow) himself suffers from Alzheimer’s and helps adopt Caesar while benefiting from Will’s research, but Will’s veterinarian girlfriend (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) voices what we know is sage advice: Don’t mess with Mother Nature.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is written by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, and in a summer-blockbuster rarity, the flawed script at least feels like the product of a singular vision instead of a committee with an eye on merchandising. It’s directed by Rupert Wyatt, whose terrific second film, the 2008 British prison-break thriller The Escapist, never got a fair showing on home-video in the U.S.
The three of them are to be blamed and/or praised for this new film’s oddness. Not a wild and wacky oddness, but instead, like Schrödinger’s cat (another theoretical, experimental animal), Rise seems to exist in a constant simultaneous state of dead and alive, of good and bad. It’s hard to say if it’s deeply stupid (specific narrative and chronology howlers could fill a notebook—I know, because I filled one) or intensely thoughtful and clever; if it’s sloppily plotted or deceptively sure-footed; if we’re meant to take it all seriously or grin knowingly at the silliness.
That makes James Franco perfectly cast. Franco is an incredibly talented actor, but also excitingly idiosyncratic—you’re never quite sure where he’s coming from in a role or if he’s winking at you. Here the 127 Hours star often seems unsure what kind of film he’s in, but that sly deadpan of his keeps you baffled as to whether he’s in on Rise’s joke or not… or if there even is one.
(For the most part, Rise plays it straight. There’s no intentional camp, but scattered throughout are plenty of nods—some subtle, some not—to the original franchise.)
Luckily Caesar is the movie’s true emotional center. Though rendered entirely in CGI (so long, rubber masks and fur suits!), British actor Andy Serkis portrays the existentially conflicted chimpanzee by way of motion-capture, as he did for Peter Jackson as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Kong in King Kong. The result is so impressively done it becomes transparent: As with Gollum and Avatar’s Na’vi, you quickly forget you aren’t watching a living, breathing being struggling with his nature and purpose.
The first third of Rise of the Planet of the Apes charts Caesar’s development in a nurturing home environment. But revolutions aren’t born of such warm surroundings, so in act two it’s off to the madhouse: in this case a primate shelter run by Brian Cox with Harry Potter’s Tom Felton providing the requisite “failure to communicate” keeper sadism.
This central section plays out like a solid prison drama, complete with 2001-style battles for yard dominance and Fascist lessons about unity under a strong leader.
Despite my notebook full of plot-device head slappers, I found myself on board for Rise. As a kid, I was a huge PoTA fan, and looking back at the original five-film franchise (we’ll not speak of the 2001 Burton abomination), yes it’s cheesy (oh you, Chuck Heston), but there’s also still something deeply compelling about both the wild sci-fi premise and the heavy philosophical and sociological ideas it was grappling with as Age of Aquarius ideals gave way to Watergate cynicism.
In part it’s the natural fascination and genetic kinship we feel toward our ape cousins—we project onto them our shorthand understanding of our own natures. (A theme recently explored in the excellent documentary Project Nim about ‘70s researchers teaching a real chimp to sign.)
And in part, these deeply uncertain political, economic, and environmental times are ripe for a return to The Planet of the Apes: That fantasy world, first created by French author Pierre Boulle in his 1963 novel, is a dystopian fable born of Cold War fears and counter-culture doubts about the inherent goodness and rightful dominance of humanity.
Thanks to all that, by the time Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets to Wyatt’s well-executed action revolution (in the streets and on the Golden Gate Bridge of San Francisco, fittingly enough), you find yourself not only emotionally connected to these apes and down with their uprising, but also eager to immediately watch the next film in the franchise–not to see where it ends up (the title’s a solid hint), but how it gets there. For all my shifting feelings about Rise’s weaknesses, it’s hard to imagine a stronger recommendation for an action thriller than that.
More from the cast of Rise of the Planet of the Apes at redbox:
- James Franco in 127 Hours, Eat Pray Love, and coming soon in Your Highness
- Brian Cox in RED (on DVD and Blu-ray)
- Tom Felton in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 1 (on DVD or Blu-ray)