‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ movie review: strong return to the Apes franchise

Unusually mannered and intelligent for a summer blockbuster, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a near-great film that ultimately settles for being merely good. Director Rupert Wyatt (whose previous movie was the underseen The Escapist) never really reconciles the epic nature suggested by the title with the more intimate human (read: ape) drama that the majority of the plot is dedicated to, and the film feels less than fully satisfying on both counts.

Still, this is thoughtful and relevant filmmaking that seems to contrast the rise of the apes with the human rights struggles that have come before it, and poses the question: at what point in evolution do we stop treating animals like animals? When they display intelligence, comprehension? When they talk? When they form armies and fight back?

These are especially welcome themes in the mainstream market, and the film is surprisingly effective in their delivery. Especially considering Fox’s seeming reluctance to screen the film in advance; in any event, they’ve been rewarded by healthy reviews and a domestic box office total that nearly doubled industry projections in the first week of release.

Rise stars James Franco as Will Rodman, a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. His latest drug has been successfully tested on chimpanzees, who display increased intelligence, but during the big board meeting his star chimp (“Bright Eyes”, a reference to the original Planet of the Apes) also displays a violent outburst. She had just given birth, and was protecting her infant son, but the trials are shut down, and Will is sent back to the drawing board. As the other chimps are put to sleep, he smuggles out the infant, taking him home for a few days while he finds a permanent solution.

But Will studies the newborn, notices signs of increased intelligence, and soon days turn into years. He names him Caesar, after Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar (the filmmakers have taken the name from Roddy McDowall’s character in Conquest of and Battle for the Planet of the Apes). He raises him as a son in suburban San Francisco along with his father (John Lithgow), who has been seemingly cured of Alzheimer’s by Will’s drug, and Caroline (Freida Pinto), the zoo veterinarian that Will is sweet on.

Turning point: when Caesar, on a leash and collar in a Redwood State Park, encounters a dog in a similar situation and later asks Will (in sign language): “Am I a pet?”

Despite the common theme of an ape uprising overtaking the Earth, Rise operates in a different universe than the original Planet of the Apes films, which were self-contained in their own, satisfying, time cycle. It’s not a prequel or even a reboot (despite some close plot similarities to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), but an entirely new take on the theme that warrants a continuation of its story in sequels; by the end, the Rise has barely occurred, and we’re left with a credits sequence to help explain what happens in the future.

Still, there are numerous direct references to the earlier films, including word-for-word line readings; even “take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape,” turns up (spoken by Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, it doesn’t quite have the same impact as when it was spoken by Charlton Heston in the 1968 original). Heston himself turns up on TV as Moses in The Ten Commandments. Missing here (thankfully) is any connection to the 2001 Tim Burton remake, though I’m not sure anyone could make enough sense out of that film to be able to follow up on it.

Minor quibbles: leaps in logic and stretches in credibility, most of which arise from a lack of understanding of how, exactly, the virus works, and how effective it is (the chimps here can seem too smart, as if they’ve read a copy of the script).

Best of all: the CGI used in the creation of the animals, which is surprisingly effective, and the motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar (previously, Serkis also played King Kong and The Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum for director Peter Jackson). Caesar is undoubtedly the heart of the film, it’s an especially well-written role, and Serkis accomplishes something special in the portrayal; end-of-the-year awards recognition is warranted.

Bonus: are you smarter than the apes in the film? Try to complete the Tower of Hanoi in the minimum number of moves.


Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky

Jason Pirodsky has been writing about the Prague film scene and reviewing films in print and online media since 2005. A member of the Online Film Critics Society, you can also catch his musings on life in Prague at expats.cz and tips on mindfulness sourced from ancient principles at MaArtial.com.

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