By Marty Mulrooney
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a science fiction film directed by Rupert Wyatt starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow and Andy Serkis. It is a reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise, acting as an origin story for a brand new film series. Will Rodman (Franco) is a scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by testing a new man-made virus on chimpanzees. When a female chimpanzee goes on the rampage and is killed, Rodman takes her baby home, naming him Caesar (performed via motion capture by Serkis). Caesar shows remarkable intelligence as he grows older, but this unnatural leap in evolution will come at a terrible cost…
Tim Burton’s remake of Planet of the Apes in 2001 proved to be a big disappointment for many fans; Mark Wahlberg presented a flat protagonist, the superb makeup effects still couldn’t hide the fact that the apes were people in costume, and the new ending made absolutely no sense at all. Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes a different approach, instead opting to show how modern-day earth eventually came to be ruled by apes. Being touted as a prequel can often restrict a film, but because this is also a reboot it has plenty of room left to breathe, allowing the director and his cast to put their own stamp on things.
James Franco is a fine actor (his acting in last year’s 127 Hours, reviewed here, truly shows what he is capable of) and he makes for a likeable protagonist in this film. Yet his girlfriend Caroline Aranha (Fredia Pinto) is given practically nothing to do and his Alzheimer’s-ridden father (John Lithgow) is well portrayed but ultimately just a plot point. The real star of the show is the largely silent chimpanzee Caesar, played beautifully by the go-to man of the mo-cap industry Andy Serkis. Caesar is a startling creation to behold, created digitally by Weta Digital using motion capture. Although the effects are still readily apparent, the gap is closing fast between computer effects and reality, with Caesar leading the charge. Some moments look photorealistic.
Caesar in undoubtedly the main focus of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and with good reason. His increased intelligence brings with it a greater sense of humanity, making his various forms of captivity all the more heartbreaking. At one point he uses sign language to ask Will (Franco) if he is a pet, leading to an awkward exchange. Later, while being held in a primate facility run by John Landon (Brian Cox), he draws a familiar window’s outline upon the stone wall of his cell. Sadly, the moments set within this facility are predictable and nonsensical. Brian Cox is a fine actor criminally underused, and Tom Felton as his son seems to have forgotten that he isn’t Draco Malfoy anymore. Together, they become weak villains with no real motive.
Therein lies the problem with Rise of the Planets of the Apes. The script isn’t strong enough and this bleeds through into the actor’s performances and the story itself. Caesar is the focus and everything else is just background noise. It leads to some pretty annoying plot holes that could have easily been avoided. At one point, Will sneaks out virus capsules from the laboratory with unusual ease. However we are not shown this, instead simply seeing him pocket them, with the next scene suddenly showing him at home. Another example: during an experiment a scientist is exposed to a virus when his mask falls off. He quickly gets his mask back on and tells everyone he is okay. They believe him and don’t press the matter further. Seriously?
Yet despite the human actors becoming secondary and the script causing problems, the film remains enjoyable. There are some great moments and Andy Serkis as Caesar is hypnotising enough to hold the viewer’s attention from beginning to end. His transformation from sweet baby chimp to vengeful adult chimpanzee, culminating with a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, is well worth the price of admission alone. Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t evolve the franchise; it takes it back to basics. As a reboot and an origin story it just about works, just don’t expect anything groundbreaking.
7 OUT OF 10
Special thanks to our friends at Plaza Cinema for providing AMO with a complementary ticket for Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
All Images © 2011 Twentieth Century Fox