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Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

DIRECTOR: Rupert Wyatt

CAST: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Andy Serkis

REVIEW:

Following Tim Burton’s unsuccessful 2001 attempt to reboot the Planet of the Apes franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which bears no connection to Burton’s loose remake of the original 1968 film) is technically a prequel, but is really intended as a springboard for a new rejuvenated series based on the famous property.  The movie accomplishes this well enough to get the job done–a second installment is due out in July 2014–but suffers from a rushed pace, thin characters (with one somewhat ironic exception), and the open ending that is a frequent symptom of prequelitis.

image0032Here, the unintentional architect of the apocalypse–and the Planet of the Apes–is ambitious young scientist Will Rodman (James Franco).  Determined to cure his Alzheimer’s-suffering father (John Lithgow), Rodman fast-tracks a drug that gives lab chimps amazingly heightened intelligence, but also inadvertently creates a virus that is fatal to humans.  Rodman’s star test subject is a baby chimpanzee named Caesar (motion capture performance by Andy Serkis), whom Rodman secretly raises from infancy in his house with the help of his father and girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) after his bottom line boss (David Oyelowo) gets nervous and orders the chimps destroyed.  For a while, Caesar makes incredible progress and it seems Rodman has unlocked the cure to Alzheimer’s and a massive intelligence enhancer all in one.  But the more intelligent and self-aware Caesar grows, the more unhappy and conflicted he becomes with his sheltered and confined existence.  Eventually, an aggressive confrontation with a neighbor lands Caesar in cruel confinement with hundreds of other apes under the thumb of abusive humans (Brian Cox and Tom Felton).  Turning his back on humanity, Caesar begins to assemble an army.  And meanwhile, the virus slowly begins seeping into the human population.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes has its share of memorable moments–almost all of which are related to Caesar–but the need to leave the story unfinished to make way for following installments is its biggest weakness.  There is no real ending; the movie basically stops, and the final shot might as well have “to be continued” captioned under it.  There is no closure for the main characters, and given the upcoming sequel jumps a decade into the future, with the post-apocalyptic battle between human survivors and Caesar’s army in full swing, and none of this cast set to return besides Andy Serkis, nor are we likely to get any.  Not that the human characters induce that deep an investment.  Ironically but perhaps fittingly, the most memorable (or the only memorable) character is Caesar himself.  Virtually all of the moments that generate an emotional reaction involve Caesar, and the CGI chimp oddly has the feel of more depth and emotion than any of the thinly-drawn humans he interacts with.  While well-rendered with a range of facial expressions, the CGI chimps are never interchangeable with the real thing, but most viewers should get used to them quickly enough, and a real chimp would not have the full emotional expressiveness that the effects team–and Andy Serkis–bring to Caesar.  At times, it almost feels like there’s two separate movies, a bland and generic one with dull protagonist Will butting heads with his money-minded boss and his father’s Alzheimer’s subplot that’s too underdeveloped to generate an emotional reaction, and then one with fascinating material like Caesar building the apes in the enclosure into a fledgling society.  It’s funny how much more engaging and compelling the scenes centering on computer-generated apes are than the ones featuring flesh-and-blood humans, but these two aspects of the movie are on markedly different levels.  There’s not that much action, but what there is–especially a climactic battle between the police and the ape army on the Golden Gate Bridge–is well-handled and thrilling.  While the original film was an allegory for racial bigotry, this one hits the standard themes of scientists paying the price of playing God.  The filmmakers throw in a couple Easter eggs and nods to the original film, with the most obvious shout-out being the original’s most famous line quoted here word-for-word.

Our human protagonist, Will Rodman, is bland and generic, and James Franco doesn’t bring much to the part.  We never really care about Will, and Caesar easily steals the show from him.  The rest of the cast includes some familiar faces—Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox (being what you’d expect), Tom Felton (sporting an American accent but still in Draco Malfoy mode)—but no one makes an impression.  Caesar is “played” by Andy Serkis, who between this, The Lord of the Rings‘ Gollum, and the title character in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, has become Hollywood’s go-to guy for motion capture performances (meaning Serkis physically acted out Caesar’s scenes and was replaced afterward with the CGI creation, helping Caesar to interact convincingly with the other actors and also providing a model for his movements and facial expressions).

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is often engaging in the moment, and some of Caesar’s scenes are both fascinating and poignant, but ultimately the movie cannot stand on its own and feels like an incomplete and half-told story.  Taken as a whole with subsequent installments that tie it further with the original film, it may come in time to be viewed more strongly, but as of now, while it’s a competent addition to the mythos, it’s not an indispensable one.

* * 1/2

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