There have now been two reboots of the classic Planet of the Apes franchise in the past decade. The first, starring Mark Wahlberg was not very good. Now, instead of doing a straight remake of the original film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sits as a prequel to the events of the original film (although not as part of that canon). This film is a big-budget summer blockbuster driven by stars such as James Franco and (to a lesser extent) Andy Serkis as well as technology by WETA Digital, whose past credits include Avatar and Lord of the Rings. There is quite a pedigree at play, but does the film live up to its potential?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is probably not what you expect it to be, and that is because it was not marketed properly. This film is not about how the planet of the apes comes to be, nor is it about an ape uprising. In fact, its eventual “rise” (which is caused entirely by an unfortunate accident that has nothing to do with the apes) actually takes place in an animated credits sequence rather than in the film itself. Instead, the film is the story of one character: an ape named Caesar, who was somehow given incredible cognitive abilities by his late mother who got them from a special medicine made by James Franco in order to cure his dad’s Alzheimer’s.
Caesar is an entirely CG creature. Every single frame with him has been digitally altered to add the focal point of the story. In fact, every single ape in the film is CGI, and there-in lies the biggest problem with the film: the CGI is not good enough. I was shocked that this was the same company that did Avatar, because putting a human and an ape next to each other never looked right. The scenes that were all ape were much better, but with actual people… they look kind of like the things you see in the Eyepets commercials.
I think the problem is this: I know what apes look like. I have seen them. I have seen pictures of them. I have seen movies with them. I have a legitimate frame of reference. When I look at Avatar, I am blown away, and I think it’s because I have no frame of reference by which to view the creatures. The only ape that fooled me was a big circus orangutan. I have never seen one of those things before and I never felt a disconnection from the reality of the film world.
Easily the best aspect of the CG is the way Caesar’s face reflects the (amazing) performance by Andy Serkis. His performance is absolutely the best thing about the film, and even when I didn’t believe that Caesar was in the room with them, I could connect with him on an emotional level. The performance capture technology is truly incredible.
As for the human performances… I wasn’t so impressed. James Franco was just kind of there, and I felt much more connection to the fake monkey than to the real him. That girl from Slumdog Millionaire plays Franco’s love interest, and has absolutely no place in the film. Seriously, she adds nothing to the movie, and removing her would have changed absolutely nothing about it. I know Hollywood requires a love interest, but at the very least they could have given her… something. I mean, there are only two scenes where she does anything, one of which is significant but could easily have been done by a different character, and the other is some kind of moral argument that doesn’t actually have any impact on the plot.
Other notable characters include Draco Malfoy (as himself), Franco’s dad (who elicits the most emotion of any character), and Franco’s stressed out neighbor (who is painted as some kind of bad guy, but really just has to deal with a lot of unfortunate things). Non-notable Also the morally corrupt business man with a British accent, other apes of various intelligences, and Malfoy’s possibly retarded brother.
The music is quite good and fits the various tones of the film better than the performances do. If you’re wondering how you are supposed to feel about a particular scene, listen to the music rather than the actors. As for the cinematography… it’s decent. The movements and positions of the camera are rarely noteworthy, although there are a couple of shots in there that were pretty cool. Within the film itself, the first two acts hold very few lasting images, but the third act has quite a few. Minor spoilers ahead:
I mentioned back at the beginning that there is not actually an ape uprising in the film. Let me clarify: what you see in the trailer is twenty or so apes that spend much of the film in some kind of cruel animal shelter who break out, destroy the laboratory that spawned Caesar, and go to the California Redwood Forest. That’s it. Unfortunately for those of you expecting some epic ape-on-man murder, Caesar’s superior intellect turned him into something of a pacifist, and so there are two ape-caused deaths in the film, both of which could easily be chalked up to self-defense or something of that sort. No, the apes do not rise up and take over the world at all. They just go play in the trees while the entire human race is wiped out. The death of humanity is caused entirely by a human due to human negligence during an experiment.
This brings me to my concluding question, one which I have asked myself every time I thought about the film… why? What purpose did the film serve? If humanity is just going to be wiped out for the apes to take over, what is the point of showing any kind of human drama? It’s all irrelevant, and there’s no tragedy there. You never feel connected to the humans, so their downfall draws no sympathy (especially given the way it’s presented). Part of the reason the orignal film was so interesting was that no one knew what the planet of the apes was, and the reveal that it was earth was a shockingly great twist. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has none of that. There is no wonder or amazement at the events of the film. Everything flows into the next exactly as you expect, which would be fine if the film was entertaining, but it really isn’t until the final act. If you see the film, do it only for Andy Serkis’s incredible performance. He is the only reason this film gets any kind of a recommendation from me. That final act is certainly enjoyable (I found myself grinning with glee several times), but it’s no more enjoyable than any other summer blockbuster.
Jenika Katz: If you look at this as a movie about human civilization being taken over by apes, it’s pretty bad. If you look at it as a movie about apes that happens to have some boring parts with humans in it, it’s a lot of fun. I guess we do need James Franco to get to know Caesar’s human side, but the movie would have been a lot better without his personal life shoved awkwardly into the plot. Alec’s Eyepet comparison is pretty spot-on: the CG looks absolutely awful next to a real person. It also looks pretty terrible with quick camera movements, which are, unfortunately, pretty common. When the apes are by themselves, however, it looks fantastic, and there are some deeply emotional moments when the humans get the hell out and let us get to know the apes. I wouldn’t pay full price to see this, but catching a matinee wouldn’t be too bad. Side note: If you look at Tom Felton’s role as Draco Malfoy’s post-Hogwarts internship, complete with American accent, the sad scenes of ape abuse get a little easier to take. Crucio! 65 – Okay.
Allistair Pinsof: In contrast to its awkward, long title, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a film that knows all the right action and drama beats that other blockbusters seemed to have missed this summer. Taken for what it is: A rather brainless epic about one monkey rising to power in the contemporary world of man, the film does not let down. The action sequences throughout are terrific due to some of the best looking CG creatures this side of the Navi, but just as captivating is Caesar’s rise to power that recalls Scarface and A Prophet more than any previous films in the Apes franchise. Caesar starts off with good intentions, becomes hardened in prison and turns into a feces-throwing force to be reckoned with by the film’s end. What I love above all is how the film doesn’t slow down the action sequences with monkey subtitles — although those do appear elsewhere — giving much of the film an ominous tone and the action a brisk pace. There are plenty of gaps in the plot and the human side-plot exists only to bolster Caesar’s internal conflict, but those didn’t detract from the overall story of Caesar or the Jumanji-like mayhem at the end. 80 – Great.