Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) / Sci Fi-Action
MPAA Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language
Running time: 105 min.
Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Andy Serkis (physical performance)
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
James Franco (Your Highness, 127 Hours) stars as Dr. Will Rodman, a scientist working for a leading biotech corporation called Gen-Sys in San Francisco, busy looking for a magic bullet to cure Alzheimer's, something that hits, literally, close to home, as his own father (Lithgow, Dreamgirls) is suffering from the mentally debilitating disease. Rodman is on the verge of a major breakthrough in the cure with an experimental drug dubbed ALZ-112, which has been shown in chimps to not only reverse damage done to brain cells, it actually stimulates the brain to make the chimps smarter than they ever were. However, prior to going public, the breakthrough chimp escapes her cell, rampaging through the facility and making a grand spectacle that ends in her death, and sees the CEO pull the plug on the project immediately effectively putting down the rest of the chimps on the site.
However, a newborn chimp is found and kept in hiding by Rodman in his home, naming him Caesar (Serkis, Flushed Away) and raising as if he was his own child, which isn't far from the truth as the chimp, who must have taken in the drug while in utero, has accelerated learning and remarkable intelligence. With the assistance of a lovely primatologist named Caroline (Pinto, You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger), who later becomes Rodman's romantic partner, they struggle with raising this wonder chimp without raising suspicions around them, and protecting Caesar from a leery and dangerous public. But Caesar realizes he's not meant to live his life as someone's prized pet, and soon has his eyes outward to the world outside his window -- a cruel world where he learns that mankind is not his friend.
Low expectations may be Rise of the Planet of the Apes' biggest asset, as very few viewers, even Apes fans, will likely think that this prequel could contain enough new, novel, or interesting plot points for the franchise to merit a reboot with this seventh film (the five-picture original arc, a Tim Burton remake, and this one). This is especially true in that one of the main surprises to the original film from 1968 was the final reveal when Earth's only potential savior realizes that the planet full of apes is, in fact, Earth of the future and not some alien planet. Other than a hypothesis as to how we could go from the world as we know it today (more or less) to a world where apes, chimps, and monkeys have dominated humanity, there would appear to be little this entry could bring to the table to justify a ticket price.
Surprising to most would be that this film, which is as rich in CGI as they get this side of a Transformers flick, would not be as mechanical and formulaic as you'd expect at first glance. Sure, it is a popcorn summer blockbuster, with the inherent strengths and weaknesses as such a label would indicate, but underneath the so-so cast and obviously fake computer generated apes, there is a story here that is told well. It is also, ironically, quite a human story, though some might claim that it is basically a simian mix of Splice's premise and I, Robot's execution. Credit Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, Subterrain) for concentrating more on the character build up and drama before letting the film rip in a very impressive ending battle finale between ape and man. Nicely shot by cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (I Am Legend, King Kong), it's sometimes hard to remember how well the film looks independent of the CGI, particularly because the captive primates, none of which are real, are very well rendered so as to show emotion without the need for words (though subtitles are used between two prominent ape characters).
The human characters, while important to the plot, take a back seat to the artificially created ones, though many accolades will certainly go Andy Serkis' way for his motion capturing the movements and expressions of chimps in fine detail. Not really a spoiler, as it is featured in many of the commercials and promo clips, is the finale, which features a showdown between apes and humans on the Golden Gate Bridge, and is a true highlight, not because of the epic scale so much as the fact that there is an honest-to-goodness emotional element to it above and beyond just the cool special effects, car crashes and explosions. It's not realistic, as rooted in science fiction fantasy as most, despite the modern Earth setting -- a shelter for primates that is run like a maximum security prison is a bit of an extreme, though effective. But, thanks to the way Wyatt preserves the tone, it does manage to work even when it is knowingly preposterous.
While not nearly as impactful as the 1968 original, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a well-told story for what it is, and should garner some new fans to the once thought dormant franchise enough to push forward at least one sequel to bridge the gap between the end of this film and the beginning of the Charlton Heston classic. Refreshing that such an epic-feeling big budget summer film based on a franchise would run at a mere one hour and forty-five minutes, and do so without the need for such gimmicks as 3D. It tells a story, tells it well, and does so giving the story what it needs when it needs it rather than giving the plot only set pieces what they think people want to see.
©2011 Vince Leo