In Theaters: Review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

by | Aug 6th, 2011 | 8:55PM | Filed under: Movies, Theatrical Reviews

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.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is set here on modern-day Earth, where earnest researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a brain-cell-building cure for Alzheimer’s disease.

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:

More cautionary sci-fi thrillers from redbox:

19 Responses to “In Theaters: Review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

  1. Spencer
    Posted on August 6, 2011 at 10:45 pm

    Curse you Locke! You made me nervous to watch this.. this was one of the movies that i was most looking forward to watching this summer.. but now I’m unsure.. Well I guess that means It’ll be a redbox rental for me and I’ll spend my money watching Captain America again!

  2. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on August 6, 2011 at 11:46 pm

    Spencer, if you’re looking forward to it, by all means check it out–it’s really not a bad film, in fact like I say, it ends up pretty gripping and entertaining. To be honest, I’m liking it more the more I think about it as each day goes by.

    • Currently 4/5 Stars
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 12:12 am

    My wife and I just go home from the cinema. We rather enjoyed it and can’t wait to see how the story developes in the next one. Here’s a clue: what do you suppose happens to the astronauts who take off in the first 30 minutes or so of the film? It seemed really out of place until you get to the end of the film.

    Sure, it had its flaws, but still a lot of fun nonetheless.

  3. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 1:13 am

    I agree completely, Bob, about the fun over flaws ratio. And yes, the astronauts of the Icaraus Mars mission are a pretty clear plant for future franchise payoff. (Icarus was the name of Charlton Heston’s spaceship in the original 1968 film.)

  4. Darla
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 11:42 am

    we really enjoyed the movie, my family went and seen it.

  5. Treacie
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 11:58 am

    I enjoyed the movie…like the review said, I found myself emotional attached, rooting for the apes, a well as waiting for the next thing to happen. I even like how they tied in Cordillia. Go to an AMC theater on Sat or Sun before 12 & only pay 6 bucks…that way if u don’t like it u didn’t waste alot of money.

  6. Barbara Sutton
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    We went to see the Rise of the Planet of the Apes yesterday…& I was pleasantly surprised! It started kinda slow, but wound up being a very good action show, plus it had a very interesting plot in it about the relationship between the ape and James Franco. Loved the way it ended! I watch General Hospital, and I was worried that James Franco would fall short from what I had seen of him on G.H. But he did a great job of the charactor he played!

  7. David
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 12:40 pm

    It sounds like the reviewer is fluo flopping. Is it good or bad? Pick one so we can get on with our lives.

  8. Tiffany Seibert
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    I liked it.

  9. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 1:26 pm

    David, I gave it a 3 1/2 on a scale of 5 — for me, that’s a solid “like” (or a — trademark, Ebert — “thumbs up”).

    But it is an odd movie that comes with some caveats and complicated reactions. But I said it was thrilling, fun, entertaining, and made me want to see more.

    Not everything or every movie is black or white, good or bad. Still, I like Rise more with each passing day.

    There, now I hope you can get on with your life. :)

  10. Byron
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 2:46 pm

    I also watched it on Saturday the 6th I kinda enjoyed the move Ive always been a fan of James francos acting from GH to the spider man movies i think he did a good job in this movie and i liked the writers job on this movie to me it did kinda start off a little slow but got right into the plot I think this franchise might be a better franchise then the original becaue of the technology that we have today I was confuse to the point I thought that this was should have been a prequil to the last planet of the apes movie that came out where the guy left the planet of the apes future and landed on the planet of the apes pass with the police cars helicopters and even the monument being caser..

  11. Renee Outin
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    I haven’t been to the movies in years due to exorbitant movie fees, people laughing way after the funny has surfaced and because I can’t pause when I need a break, HOWEVER athis move was off the chain and well worth seeing, great job

  12. pagirlhere
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 3:41 pm

    Oddly enough, this movie was entertaining and would recommend the movie. There are references in this movie relating back to the original series tieing the two films together and setting up the next film. We were amazed at the computer animation with the facial ape features and how the animation mixed right in with the actors. James Franco is an awesome actor and hope to see him in the next movie. Hail Caesar.

    • Currently 5/5 Stars
    Posted on August 7, 2011 at 5:14 pm

    The movie is amazing! I was not sure what to expect when I saw this because I had never seen any of the old stuff, but when I left, I was ready to see it again! Go watch it! Like NOW!

  13. Sean
    Posted on August 8, 2011 at 2:39 am

    “2001 Burton abomination”? I take it you give that one a thumbs down. Interesting. Being born in 1982, I find that I simply cannot watch anything made before the mid 80s. There are very few exceptions. So the “2001 Burton abomination” is the only Apes movie I like. Sucker Punch, now THAT’S an abomination.

  14. Locke Peterseim
    Locke Peterseim
    Posted on August 8, 2011 at 10:52 am

    Sean, it’s interesting, I was about to admonish you for not watching films from the ’60s and especially the brilliant ’70s, but then I realized I was born in 1966 and myself sometimes have trouble getting into films made from before the ’60s.

    But still, that Burton film is awful — I rewatched both it and the original Heston ’68 version last week, and it’s just a mess in every possible way: as an action film, as a sci-fi idea film, and especially as a POTA film. I grew up on POTA and going back and rewatching the original (as well as Conquest) for the first time in decades, I was struck by the fact that while the original films have a huge sheen of cheesiness (especially Heston’s scenery chewing acting), they also still have an impressive force of IDEAS. For a “silly” series about talking apes, it’s amazing how jam-packed they are with fairly heavy sociological/philosophical commentary — so much more so than any equally popular sci-fi action series today.

    But the Burton film, gawd… it misses everything that made the original series (and this new reboot) work, especially the sense of fatalism, cynicism, and alienation. Watch the original ’68 Heston film and the first half of it is mostly a quiet, creepy, unnerving film about just being completely isolated, lost and cut off from everything you know. It’s amazing watching it now to imagine myself as an 8 or 9 year old kid soaking those films up — no wonder I’m such a misanthropic cynic as an adult! The Burton film just continually goes for silly jokes without ever really connecting on a serious satiric level.

    I know I hate when older folks tell me I just HAVE to watch more films from the ’40s and ’50s, but a lot of the time they’re right, so take this with a grain of salt: you REALLY should start exploring some of the truly GREAT American film making of the ’60s and ’70s — it was an absolutely BRILLIANT period in film.

    Here’s a piece I’ve written for redblog about that period: but you can also Google for more lists of Must-See American Independent film of the ’70s. (Including that original POTA :) ) You can at least start with the big blockbusters: Jaws, The Godfather I & II, The Exorcist, 2001 A Space Odyssey, and then move on to Cuckoo’s Nest, M*A*S*H, Chinatown, The French Connection, Taxi Driver, Badlands, Midnight Cowboy, Dog Day Afternoon, Network, and oh, so so many more!

    Here are some more ’70s film lists:

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