An engaging return to the classic franchise, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing look at the modern man, our society and how we treat those who are different. (7.5/10)
One of the downsides of giving your movie a title like The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that not only does your title sound extremely clumsy but at the same time you look like you’re destroying a classic film by giving it a cheap, cursory Hollywood makeover. Rise (the full title is far too long to use more than once) is not some half-hearted attempt to leveraging a popular movie just to make a few easy dollars. Well, it is, but it’s not half-hearted. The story is rather far-fetched and more than a little contrived but beyond the convenience of the plot there are some interesting ideas being thrown around. Anyone who has seen the original Planet of the Apes knows that this movie will end with the apes on the ascendancy but this movie is not really about monkeys versus humans so much as it is about the individual’s fight for a meaningful place in society. In a time where society is learning to overcome its inherent tendency to marginalize those who are different, Rise actually gives a strangely empathic take on what it is to be an outsider in every sense.
The movie’s first major success is in creating a believable, relatable setting. Often movies which precede an apocalyptic disaster have difficulty stringing together a plausible cause for humanity’s utter annihilation. Rise actually side steps the problem deftly and instead of making the threat of human extinction plausible focuses instead on the characters and tells a more emotionally powerful tale in the process. The success of the film, in fact, lies in the way that the potentially problematic issue of mankind’s demise is delayed until such a point that the audience’s emotional investment is no longer in the possibly apocalyptic event but rather in the characters and their conflict. The movie does miss an opportunity to pose more challenging questions to its audience though. The movie, understandably to some extent, casts the apes as inherently ‘good’ and the humans as, generally, ‘bad’. There are exceptions to both rules of course, but not enough to make any sort of difference. While the morality here is simplistic, to say the least, it creates this strange effect where the audience is left conflicted by the end of the movie – do you cheer for the apes who despite mankind and will ultimately destroy humanity? While it’s satisfying to see the apes earn their freedom, you know that it will come at a cost and you feel guilty for feeling good about the apes getting the better of the humans. However, these emotional conflicts do not really sit well in movie which is otherwise fairly straightforward in what it is trying to achieve.
While there is some good to be said the plot thematically, there are some serious flaws in its execution. Often, plot holes can be overlooked if they lead to a better story, yet if they happen too frequently, you’re simply inviting disaster. Rise is no disaster but the plot is repeatedly made subject to higher level thematic concerns. A good example from early in the movie comes from the circumstances of Caeser’s birth. Caeser is clearly meant to be a messianic figure, a natural leader for the revolution to come – but its a little egregious when the plot gives him a birth from immaculate conception (though thankfully, they never directly say so in the film itself). To elaborate a little further, the apes are kept isolated from each other and are tested daily – yet the scientists discover one day that one of the chimps is pregnant! It just feels like the writers had an ideal in mind and wanted to see it through regardless of how poorly it fit the context of the story. Similarly, there are far too many overused stale action movie tropes deployed at various parts of the film and they detract from the film’s credibility. Is the audience really supposed to just accept that all of the SFPD’s firepower (including a helicopter) cannot suppress a rebellion of 25 apes? Having said that, the addition of Charles Rodman gave the film a great deal more flavour since it transformed Will Rodman from a bland, nice scientist to a man fighting to save his dying father.
The script was largely unimpressive as well, and that’s despite Caesar getting two dramatic lines of dialogue at key parts of the film. Franco’s delivery made Will’s arc much more enjoyable though he was aided by a solid script. The real issue is that Pinto’s character seemed tacked on to the film just to give it some female human presence. She’s a secondary character at best and doesn’t do a great deal in the movie except exchange some creepy moments with Caesar and provide the basis for an unneeded romance subplot with Franco. She did not do a bad job (mainly because she didn’t get enough screen-time to) but if you’re going to include a female character in a clearly token capacity, then you should stretch the character out a little bit so that you don’t pay an actress a lot of money for a token role. The acting was largely solid with Franco, Serkis and Lithgow all putting in strong, competent shifts. Franco’s Will Rodman was one the audience could get behind – your typical scientific genius, who’s just trying to help a loved one but has to overcome the difficulties created by Corporate (and who doesn’t hate Corporate in this economic climate? Or any economic climate for that matter) and make some tough choices. Franco has a certain charm when he’s on stage/screen (the same charm that pretty much went on strike at the Oscars) that makes him a pleasure to watch. Andrew Serkis did a great job with the character’s limitations and should be applauded as such. A good deal of the support Caesar drew from the audience came from how human his facial expressions and body language were, since obviously the audience had no verbal dialogue to draw from. Lithgow didn’t get as much screen time as he deserves, in my opinion. He ensured that the audience had an emotional connection with Caesar and Will, which was a crucial part of the first three-quarters of the film. Even Pinto gave a decent performance in a role that few could call ‘juicy’. Like Franco, she has a certain charm (for the lack of a better word) that a lot of other actresses lack, which worked well here when creating that sense of warmth around Caesar. The same cannot be said of Felton and Cox. Cox was just largely forgettable and incredibly bland. He wasn’t a character who the audience could get a fix on; was he ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or just plain ol’ ‘ugly’? It is not clear, but the answer depends on your view on apathy towards others’ suffering. Felton, on the other hand, was very clearly ‘bad’, but it was painfully obvious that he went too far in his quest to be evil. He became the comical moustache-twirling villain rather than the intimidating monster he was supposed to be. Felton’s character gave the film’s a suddenly darker feel but then he would go and ruin it by saying things like ‘filthy Mudblood monkey’. That line, as well as its delivery, turned the scene’s intensity from Nazi/Holocaust levels to Scooby-Doo levels. He wasn’t all bad though; he got the ‘contempt for apes’ thing down just right but its just that if his face was colder, his eyes meaner and if he had a more physically intimidating frame, I think he would have made a much better Dodge Landon.
In general, Rise had some great action sequences and the visual effects were clean and well executed. The apes movement and facial expressions were especially well-done and thankfully so, given how much of the film’s success rode on it. The apes’ jumping through the glass and general movement on the whole was very well captured and did a good job raising the intensity of the action scenes. There are minor issues nevertheless – the climatic bridge scene could have been a whole lot better, for example. That scene represented the climax of the movie where the apes’ resentment and anger had reached boiling point and was spilling over. The open conflict between humans and the apes (though on a much smaller scale than originally implied) is what the Planet of the Apes franchise is all about. So, bearing that in mind, the battle on the bridge was too slow-paced and had too many unnecessary interruptions. Of course, that combined with how unlikely it was that the apes would be able to take out some many armed humans and the convenient presence of the fog, meant that the ending was not as satisfying as it could have been but in the end there is only so far you can stretch credibility before it snaps. All in all this is a great reboot to the franchise, especially after the damage the last reboot did to it.
James Franco – Will Rodman
Freida Pinto – Caroline Aranha
John Lithgow – Charles Rodman
Brian Cox – John Landon
Tom Felton – Dodge Landon
Andy Serkis – Caesar