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Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Tonight's Feature Presentation


Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton

Written By: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver Directed By: Rupert Wyatt

The Short Version

In a year of big budget prequels, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was surprisingly good.

This is one of the rare occasions where the CG characters don’t look bad amongst the real people.

The apes out-act most of the humans.

The overt human story is bland, the overt ape story is simple but interesting, and the subtle backstory is genius.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is better than you might have been expecting, and could have been better still.

The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?


It’s milder than you expect, but it’s tasty enough to set you up for something more, which is why it usually comes as part of the appetizer.

Pairs Well With...


From the winery run by the desecdants of John Muir, from whom Muir Woods gets its name.  For some reason, I imagine Caesar preferring white wine over red when he retreats to his beloved woods.

“Careful.  Humans don’t like smart ape.”

I’ll admit that I wasn’t all that excited when I learned that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was headed to theatres.  The original movie had been interesting, but the franchise was hit and miss, and the idea of yet another movie that would hinge on computer generated characters certainly didn’t thrill me at all.  But there it was as I was walking past a theatre on its opening weekend, and I figured, “what the hell?”

I came away very pleasantly surprised.  The stuff that I didn’t expect to work actually did, and it actually worked so well that it mostly made up for the film’s weak points.

As our story begins, Will Rodman (James Franco, Spider-Man) is a scientist working for a pharmaceutical company based out of San Francisco.  He’s trying to develop a drug that can be used to treat and perhaps even cure Alzheimer’s disease, a goal that is especially dear to him given the fact that he’s watching his once-brilliant father (John Lithgow, 2010: The Year We Make Contact) fade before his eyes from the disease.  Animal trials have been extremely promising, but when the ape that has been the focus of his research goes crazy during a presentation to the Board recommending human trials, the program is shut down, and all of the animals involved in the experiment destroyed.  As the scientists sadly work to comply with this order, they discover that the reason for the ape’s outburst was that she was defending her newborn baby, which has had the experimental drug in his veins from the moment he was conceived.  Unable to kill a baby – and with perhaps other motives in mind – Rodman sneaks the animal home with him, where he proceeds to raise it like a child over the next several years.  It is his academic father who names the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Fellowship of the Ring).

As Caesar grows, he develops remarkable levels of intelligence, and what’s more, when Rodman decides to disobey his superiors and test his experimental drug on his father, the man’s Alzheimer’s seems to disappear.  However, this bliss will not last in either case, and when it all comes crashing down, it will mean trouble not only for Rodman, but indeed, for the entire city, and for all of mankind…

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really three stories layered atop one another.

The first is the human story of Will Rodman and his quest to cure Alzheimer’s disease.

The second is the story of Caesar’s rise to intellectual awareness and his bringing his fellow apes to their own advanced consciousness.

These first two stories are overt, for the entire world to see.  The third – the one that actually gives the movie its title – is not so obvious, and is woven into the background so subtly that many audiences may miss it entirely.

The first story is bland and disappointing.  The second is straightforward but plays better than you might expect.  The third is brilliant.

The human story is predictable, by the numbers stuff that gets little to no help from the either the writers who penned the characters or the actors playing them.  The characters are flat, shallow, off-the-shelf archetypes that have no existence outside the readymade molds from which they were cast.  Rodman is the overambitious scientist whose well-intentioned experiments go horribly wrong, and he is played with absolutely no conviction by James Franco, who has slightly less screen presence than an inflatable doll and is just about as compelling.  The character has no attachments that are not absolutely demanded by his archetype, and even those ring hollow thanks to Franco’s uninspiring performance, which makes it next to impossible to believe that Rodman is capable of developing any kind of emotional relationship with anyone.  John Lithgow puts in a technically fine performance, but the fact that it’s supposed to be heart tugging doesn’t automatically make it so, and perhaps in part due to the actor he needs to bounce his own performance off of, Lithgow’s portrayal has no real emotional resonance.  Instead, his ups and downs with his disease feel like nothing more than boxes being checked off on a formula sheet.  As for Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), she really doesn’t have a chance to do anything but look nice; the script marginalizes her character almost as soon as she appears, making her ineffective as either a scientist or as an alleged love interest.  (And I do mean “alleged;” there is no chemistry here whatsoever, and barely any effort is made to pretend at it.)

When all is said and done, if you don’t know exactly how the human story will play out at any point, you’re just not paying attention.  But then again, neither is James Franco, so you wouldn’t be alone.

The ape story is equally predictable, but it plays far better, thanks – incredibly enough – to much more compelling performances.  This where I had expected the film to fail coming in; after all, as much as Hollywood would like to believe otherwise, the age of computer generated characters that work seamlessly amongst humans just isn’t here yet, save for the fluke that was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies.  But then again, Rise of the Planet of the Apes brought in the same people who made Gollum work in those films, and while the results aren’t quite as spectacular, they’re close enough to work.  Though you can tell them for what they are, the effects stand up well enough that it never looks or feels as though the film has turned into a cartoon, and with that potential distraction out of the way, the motion capture and vocal talent can get to work.  Just as he did for Gollum, Andy Serkis delivers all of the emotional resonance that his character’s human counterpart does not, even before he ever speaks or signs a word.  He is an actor who has taken advantage of an emerging niche within his profession (motion capture performance of a CG character) and absolutely mastered it to the highest level.  Thanks to this, even though you always have a fairly good idea of what’s going to happen next, it’s still compelling, and when all is said and done, you’re cheering for the apes.  (This is a pretty neat trick not only because they’re special effects, but also because technically, you’re cheering against yourself.  But then again, your fellow humans are acting like cretins, so if you’re civilized, maybe it’s not such a shock after all.) 

Rise of the Planet of the Apes lives or dies based on how well Caesar can impact the audience, and he does so marvelously.  Had the human story been just as powerfully played as the ape story, this movie would have had the potential to be one of the year’s best; as it stands, it’s still pretty good.

The best part of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, is the part that flies under the radar if you’re not paying close attention, for all of the action that actually gives the movie its title occurs offhandedly and in the background.  The very drug that gives Caesar and later on his fellow apes advanced intelligence turns out to have a very different effect on humans, and if you blink or run off for a bathroom break at the wrong time, you might miss it.  And if you miss that – or even if you don’t – you might not notice what’s happening in the background when the end credits start to roll in the form of a very significant map indicating air traffic patterns around the world.  The ultimate icing, though, comes in the form of background news reports about a space mission to Mars which seem to have nothing to do with the story at hand and can easily be tuned out as background noise.  If you do listen, you’ll learn that the spacecraft disappears during its voyage through space, and if you put two and two together and remember how Planet of the Apes originally began…

It’s subtly played, but it’s brilliant when you get it, and unexpectedly well woven considering how generally predictable the rest of the movie is. 

That predictability, though, does not damn the film to mediocrity, thanks to how powerfully the apes’ story arc plays out.  On the human side, James Franco doesn’t really same to care either way, but fortunately, Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t rest on his shoulders so much as it does on those of Andy Serkis, and Serkis is more than up to the task.

Bottom line, though it certainly could have been better, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a surprisingly compelling prequel to the storied science fiction series, and very much worth picking up for any fan of it.  It also works well as a standalone piece, and can be equally enjoyed by moviegoers who aren’t familiar with any of the other Planet of the Apes films.  Either way, it’s worth your time.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, December, 2011

More From The Bar! | Aeon Flux | The Thing (2011) | Escape From LA |

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