Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the exhausting title to the seventh entry in the Planet of the Apes series and it serves as a sort of reboot, as well as a prequel.  I know how much you like prequels and reboots!  I was not looking forward to this one whatsoever, if only because the last effort to revitalize this franchise was a huge disappointment for me, and that movie had a much better cast and director.  This director had made only one other movie, and I had never even heard of it.  What would it take to make Rise even halfway decent? 
Hint: more than a tire swing

Well, a different focus, for starters.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins with brilliant scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) experimenting a new drug on chimpanzees.  You see, Will's father, Charles (John Lithgow), has Alzheimer's and Will is trying to find a cure.  In other words, his drug will repair the brain, or enchance the brain if no damage is present.  When Will finally finds a chimp that responds positively to the drug, he pleads with his boss (David Oyelowo) to approve human testing; boss-man agrees to give Will a chance to convince the Board of Trustees.  On the very day of Will's presentation, the super-chimp (dubbed "Bright Eyes") goes, um, bananas, attacking people and destroying property.  Obviously, the drug is bad and all the chimps must be killed.  But wait...!  Will and his monkey handler guy (Tyler Labine) discover a teeny, tiny baby chimp in Bright Eyes' cage --- Bright Eyes wasn't drug crazy, she was protecting her child!  Aww...!
Free shipping?  Why wouldn't you buy a monkey?
So, yeah, that was tragic.  Will won't let the baby monkey get all murderdeathkilled, though.  He does what any scientist in a similar situation would do --- he experiments on the monkey because its momma was taking some crazy drugs when it was in the womb sneaks it out of the building and takes it home with him.  This was going to just be a temporary solution, but Will's dad seemed to like the monkey, so it stuck around.  More than that, this monkey turned out to be super-smart.  In fact, little Caesar (motion-capture-acted by Andy Serkis) is brilliant enough to convince Will to steal some of his experimental drug and try it out on his dad, on the sly.
"Pizza!  Pizza!"
Everything seems to be coming up Will for a while, but eventually Caesar is discovered by the neighbors and Will is forced to give him up.  And this is where the movie gets interesting.  Up until this point, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been about Will raising Caesar almost like a son.  From this point on, the film is about Caesar becoming a man.  Well, not literally.

The human actors in Rise of the Planet of the Apes are just okay.  I don't completely buy James Franco as a brilliant scientist, but I thought he handled his role fairly well.  Freida Pinto's character didn't add a whole lot to the story, but she was also fine.  John Lithgow was pretty good as Will's father, but I would have preferred seeing his character's big breakdown happen at night.  David Oyelowo was less impressive as the greedy and ruthless science boss; his character could have legitimately had a mustache-twirling scene where he counted his imaginary money.  Brian Cox plays a small supporting role and is decent, although I think he has played the same basic bastard character a few times over by now.  This is the first first big post-Harry Potter role for Tom Felton, and he is once again stuck playing a villain.  I really wanted to like Felton here, but I couldn't wait to see him die.
If only for his lame "It's a madhouse" line
As the primary chimp, Caesar, Andy Serkis was phenomenal.  It's too bad that his acting isn't considered legit by most big-time awards shows, because his motion-capture work is just astounding here.  Really, the emotional weight of the film depends on Serkis' physical acting and he does not disappoint.  Shifting the focus of the story onto a monkey --- without a human to narrate to the audience --- was risky and potentially hilarious (in the wrong way), but Andy Serkis absolutely made this film.
Now, kiss
Director Rupert Wyatt did an impressive job with the actors who were imitating monkeys; the rest of the film he could have handled better.  The second half of the movie, which focuses almost exclusively on Caesar's struggles, is pretty great.  Monkeys fighting each other, monkeys fighting Draco Malfoy, monkeys being monkeys...the only thing missing was poop throwing.  Not all directors can handle CGI directing, but Wyatt did not appear to have a problem with that.  The first half of the movie, though, occasionally veered into the realm of ridiculousness.  Not all of it is Wyatt's fault, but as director, he should have prevented some of this.

Let's start with the title/tag line.
Okay, that's a pretty cool bit of promo work, but it (and the movie's trailer) definitely imply a hell of a lot more fighting and, well, revolution than the final product provides.  There are only two definite ape-on-human deaths in this film, despite a swarm (a flock?  A pack?  A murder?) of apes fighting the police on the Golden Gate Bridge.  Those scenes were entertaining, but if you went into the movie hoping for a lot more action like that, you would be sorely disappointed.  Instead of there being a "revolution," SPOILER ALERT: the apes go into the redwood forest.  Humanity then apparently suffers a pandemic during the closing credits.  That's right, the deadliest part of this movie happens off-camera.  Really, that was the most disappointing realization I had with Rise of the Planet of the Apes; it wasn't so much a "rising" as it was winning by default.
Fact: apes love railings

That ending would have been a slight let down in the best of times, but when you combine that with a supposedly smart story doing many stupid things, things start to get ugly.  I won't dive into my first problem with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in depth, but I have to mention it.  This movie takes place over a span of eight years.  Eight years!  And the only character that has even a slight cosmetic change in all that time is Caesar.  I'm not saying that Freida Pinto needed a perm or that James Franco should have had a mullet, but every human character is static over those eight years --- they have the same appearance, the same jobs, live in the same homes, and apparently have the same opinions.  If anything argues that this movie is about the CGI monkeys, it is that indifference to character development.
Slightly attracted strangers, or longtime lovers?  This could be any scene in the movie.
My biggest problem had to do with the way Will's scientist gig worked.  I'm not a high-profile scientist tasked with the job of creating something new, safe, and ridiculously profitable, but I imagine security at places where that sort of thing happens would be fairly strict.  Not only is Will able to sneak out a baby chimp in a perforated shoebox on "Kill the Monkeys" day, but he steals what amounts to dozens of canisters of his super-secret brain drug.  At least they hid stuff inside shaving cream cans in Jurassic Park --- he just puts them in his pocket.  And does nobody take an interest in Will's life at work?  "Gee, Will, it sure sucks that the company wants you to stop researching the drug that might cure your dad's Alzheimer's...oh?  Your dad's much better now?'t happen, but...great!  Are we missing some of the brain drug canisters?"

There are moments of Rise of the Planet of the Apes that are truly entertaining.  Caesar's schemes were pretty cool and the CGI/motion-capture expressions were fantastic.  But this is a clumsy movie.  It has ham-fisted references to the original film (although the spacecraft bit was subtle and cool) and extremely shallow human characters running around in a plot with many convenient logic holes.  I can't overlook my utter surprise that this movie wound up entertaining me, but I was disappointed in the overall direction of the picture as well as its numerous moments of stupidity.  Given the same overall story and a less ridiculous script, I would probably give this movie eight stars.  But Rise of the Planet of the Apes sucks hard on the stupid lever, and I can't ignore that.


  1. Good review! John Lithhow was excellent in this. I liked the movie all the way up to the uprising. Haha. Enjoyed the human drama more than the monkeys...But Andy Serkis was great.

  2. Yeah, the human characters in this were awful and generic. Why was the chick in this movie at all? She started out as some kind of chimp scientist (if memory servers) and that never comes into play for the rest of the movie.