August 5, 2011

THE SHOWBUZZDAILY REVIEW: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”



RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES – Worth A Ticket:  Simian Power


Although it’s positioned as the last big adventure epic of the summer, for most of its length Rupert Wyatt’s RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES isn’t really an action movie.  Somewhat surprisingly, while it establishes an alternative mythology to explain (spoiler alert?) apes taking over the world, the script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver honors the ethos of the original 1968-73 film series and concentrates on (simian) character and story.  Despite some flaws that ultimately catch up with it, the result is one of the more satisfying pictures of the season.


 In the new timeline of Rise, it isn’t the aftermath of nuclear war that causes the mutation leading to intelligent apes and the downfall of humanity.  Rather, the culprit is that ever-popular bugaboo, genetic tinkering.  Will Rodman (James Franco) works at the multinational pharmaceutical company Gen-Sys, where like many a movie scientist who shouldn’t have tampered with nature, he only wants to do good.  Specifically, he’s trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, a malady that hits close to home because it afflicts his music teacher dad (John Lithgow).  Will has come up with a drug that builds healthy cells in the brain, counteracting the effects of the disease, and he’s ready to start testing it on chimps (the name of the first test subject is the first of several nods to the original Apes).  Disaster ensues, and the tests are abandoned, but not before Will manages to rescue a chimp baby from the lab and bring it home with him.  That baby, ominously for those who remember Roddy McDowell’s second incarnation in the Apes series, is named Caesar, and he’s been exposed to the miracle dru


Since Caesar’s brain cells were healthy to begin with, the drug creates even more brain power for the chimp, giving him super-intelligence.  In sequences that won’t be the last to echo the recent documentary Project Nim, we follow Caesar over a period of years with Will and his father, living somewhere between a pet and a younger brother.  (Along the way, Will acquires a vet girlfriend, played by Frieda Pinto.)  But of course, Caesar is still an ape, and when Will’s father is attacked, and Caesar tries to rescue him, he does so in a way more fit for the jungle than the suburbs.

This leads to the most interesting section of the movie, which is essentially a jailbreak caper:  Caesar is imprisoned in a “shelter” where owner Brian Cox (who starred in Wyatt’s indie The Escapist, another prison break picture) and his reliably evil son Tom Felton mistreat the captives, and where Caesar plots his escape.   Caesar, for the first time in his life, is among other apes, and there’s very little dialogue; the almost purely visual sequences of Caesar figuring out how to form alliances and strategize the simian power structure are beautifully done

Here’s the place to note that, thanks to the new wonders of CG and performance-capture technology, “Caesar” isn’t a guy in an ape suit, as in the original Apes films (and in Tim Burton’s misbegotten 2001 remake), but a wholly computer-generated creature who interacts with complete believability alongside the human actors.  His performance is created by Andy Serkis, who’s previously done this with Gollum in the Lord of the Rings pictures and as Peter Jackson’s King Kong.  As in Avatar, the line between “special effect” and “acting” are all but erased here; the eyes and expressions of Caesar look utterly real.

The special effects are a little less effective in the last section of the movie, where crowds of apes are required, and where the conventions of big-budget Hollywood action lead to the apes performing super-simian stunts that look as fake as when CG’d humans perform them in other movies.  This is also where Wyatt’s inexperience with big action sequences shows, and where the script starts to falter by becoming more generic popcorn entertainment.  (It doesn’t help that there are suddenly advances in Caesar’s abilities that seem too abrupt, or that this section is kicked off by one too many salutes to the original Apes, a blunt gag that comes at what should be a critically important point in the story.)

The bigger underlying problem with Apes is that the humans are never remotely as interesting as the simians.  While Caesar is a fully-fledged, complex character, and even the supporting apes have their moments of characterization, Will is completely bland, and Franco does nothing to make him more engaging (I’m not sure Franco is ever going to be a movie star, if that’s even what he wants to be); Pinto, Cox, Lithgow, Felton and David Oyelowo as Will’s boss have even less to do.  People were never at the center of the Apes series (Charlton Heston aside), but this story is set in the contemporary human world, so it’s a more serious shortcoming here.

Glitches aside, Rise is mostly a smart and even soulful entertainment that retains the spirit of its 1960s-70s roots.  It’s the rare tentpole movie that makes the idea of sequels seem like a prospect, rather than a chore.  (Thinking of which, don’t jump from your seat as soon as the end credits start.)  Franchise of the Planet of the Apes, anyone?

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."