We’re all used to seeing dead franchises revived at the cineplex, and usually it seems like nothing more than a moneygrab. That’s certainly what I figured Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be. It takes a dormant film series that always seemed pretty silly, and tries to update it for Hollywood’s current sensibilities of the grittier, the better.
I thought this attempt to make the Planet of the Apes story more relevant would backfire hilariously – how do you take a bunch of super-intelligent, realistic CG apes going apeshit without it becoming completely, ridiculously stupid? When the commercials prominently feature monkeys wrecking havoc on helicopters with a dead serious tone, you can’t exactly expect Shakespeare.
But I’ll cop to being wrong to have expected the worst with Rise of the Apes, because this movie isn’t just not bad, it’s solid and definitely worth checking out.
The film works as a new prequel to the Apes mythos – explaining the catalyst that led to intellectual increase found in the series’ primates. Turns out, it was an accidental effect of a new drug created by Will Rodman (James Franco) meant to cure Alzheimer’s disease. When being tested on chimpanzees, Will is blind-sided by the unintended drastic mental uptick on his test subject, Ceaser.
A lot of story elements feel recycled from older, established norms. Take for instance an animal sanctuary run by an impassionate staff that will abuse the animals to get them to obey. This kind of stuff that teaches easy morals could come out of a kids movie. But Rise of the Apes eschews any B-movie flavor by really investing in the cast – with all of Franco’s overexposure recently, it can be difficult to remember the guy knows what he’s doing. But we also get John Lithgow and Freida Pinto in roles too minor to fully appreciate them. And on the hammier side of things, we get Brian Cox and Tom Felton (in his first big role after playing Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), both of whom know how to skillyfully pull off douchebaggery.
The more I think about it, the more impressed I am by the film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes starts out with the Franco playing the protagonist, but as the second act progresses, the film has the guts to switch to Ceaser – a computer generated chimpanzee – as the main character (a decision made easier by the fact that Andy Serkis provides a motion capture performance for the character, but still.) The visual effects by Weta here are a new landmark in digital characters, and that they’re able to communicate so much of a character without dialogue is a real achievement. This is the greatest achievement of Rise of the Planet of the Apes – Ceaser isn’t completely visually realistic, but he’s so well handled that you’re never taken out of the film by him. To the contrary, he only invests you more in the film.
The action sequence of primate destruction promised in the advertising does indeed take place at the end of the film (spoiler alert – shit gets wrecked), but it doesn’t go down as a Gladiatorial Smackdown of Silly as has been hinted. This is, indeed, a pretty gnarly sequence where characters much stronger than humans destroy anything that gets in their way, but only after a strongly developed story that makes such an action sequence as believable as possible.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, at its very essence, a pretty silly story. The innate hilarity of non-sapien primates keeps the film from being anything realistic. But what makes this film work is that it does play its story completely straight. These aren’t just apes, they’re characters.
I was hoping Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be a humorous failure of a film. But I think I ended up getting something way better.