Film Review: ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’

There was a kind of grandeur to the science-fiction films of the 1960s. Naturally they didn’t have the kinds of special effects that we have now, but they worked on big ideas, from the nature of humanity in 2001: A Space Odyssey to the contemporary fears of overpopulation in Soylent Green to the timeless question of whether apes will be our masters in the original Planet of the Apes.

I can’t think of many (or any for that matter) modern remakes that recapture or even attempt to emulate that grandeur of their bigger-thinking predecessors (however silly their concerns may have been). Instead of big ideas, Rise has a pretty simple story: James Franco is a researcher at a drug company, working on a cure for Alzheimer’s that accelerates the creation of brain tissue.

During a board meeting with the investors, one of his brightest test subjects escapes and crashes the party at exactly the wrong time. The beast is put down, but she’s revealed to have been pregnant, and Franco adopts her son (prophetically named “Caesar” by Franco’s senile father, played by John Lithgow). As the years go by, Franco realizes that the cure injected into the mother has been passed on to Caesar, who’s developed into a Superchimp, exhibiting an uncanny intelligence.

Unfortunately, an incident involving the neighbor’s car ends with Caesar taken away and put into the local ape sanctuary. The story shifts from Caesar’s home life to, well, The Great EscAPE, as Caesar rebels against his captors, unites his ape-y bretheren, and several other things that I probably shouldn’t spoil but which are outlined in the trailer.

Perhaps the movie’s biggest flaw is the marketing, which is pushing the film as more of an action flick than an escape thriller. And I wonder how many viewers, or even critics, will go in with that in mind and attack it for being a mindless action flick or overloaded with CGI instead of looking at what’s on screen, which is pretty damn good.

The protagonist of the film is actually not Franco but Caesar, who is rendered by motion capture from Andy Serkis (Gollum from Lord of the Rings) and whose confinement makes up the bulk of the film. Naturally there’s several moments where you can tell it’s CGI, but director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) deserves credit for not making the effects of celebration of themselves. Instead, he uses them for all the right purposes: to tell a story. And it’s engaging and entertaining enough that I didn’t see the irony in my impatience every time it went back to the human actors.

It also has a sense of humor. Again, Wyatt’s not trying to copy the depth of the original or offer up any warnings for humanity. He doesn’t get bogged down in endless and excessive plotting but aims for something straightforward and even, at times, campy—particularly with the nigh-cartoonish villains of Brian Cox (playing the sleaziest ape-handler ever to grace the silver screen), his primate-hating son Tom Felton (yes, Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy, inspiring more than a few head tilts), and the head of the pharmaceutical company, David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland), embodying the classic cinematic “three Bs of evil”: black, British, and businessman. He somehow crafts his own stereotype.

Similarly, in the spirit of Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (not his own Planet of the Apes), the film both admires and pokes fun at the sheer goofiness of its material. For example, there’s a quick cutaway gag early on that has Caesar deconstructing a model Statue of Liberty.

It’s so quick that you almost don’t notice, but it’s among several scenes that sneak in some much-needed laughter. Even more so during one of the movie’s most important scenes, which strikes a precise note of melodrama that makes it both serious and comedic.

Overall, it’s better than you expect and offers many surprises in its humor, story, and not a little helping of camp.

Some questions:

What is the point of Tyler Labine’s storyline? Is it a setup for the sequel?

Why doesn’t Caesar require periodic doses of the drug?

Wouldn’t Franco notice some of the canisters missing?

Why doesn’t Franco age in eight years?

Is Franco even divorced when he flirts with the lady vet?

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