In a cinematic landscape crowded with sequels, prequels, and reboots, Rise of the Planet of the Apes may easily be passed off as just another part of the pack, when in fact it's a fresh take on a beloved franchise with some fancy new tricks up its sleeve. The Planet of the Apes series has had hits and misses through the years, and this iteration manages to be a fulfilling part of the legacy and an enjoyable stand-alone piece. While imperfect, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is visually stunning and full of heart, thanks primarily to an amazing performance by Andy Serkis as the sweet, but confused and troubled genius chimp Caesar.
James Franco is fine as Will Rodman, a conflicted and unethical young scientist who is working on a drug to cure Alzheimer's, which he has a personal stake in since his father Charles (John Lithgow) has an advanced case of the disease. His trials are shut down when his prize test ape, Bright Eyes, goes berserk in the lab. What is presumed to be a side effect of the drug turns out to be motherly instinct when a newborn baby chimp is found in her examining room. Unable to bring himself to put the infant to sleep, Will takes little Caesar home.
The green glint in Caesar's eye and his uncanny intelligence hint to Will that the drug was passed from mother to child and in fact has amazing results. Will proceeds to raise Caesar as a son, which goes swimmingly until Caesar starts to realize what he is missing out on in the world. A misunderstanding with a neighbor lands Caesar at a terrifying ape "preserve," which leaves Caesar feeling betrayed and ready to organize an uprising with his fellow apes.
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The movie opens with an emotionally powerful image of apes in the wild being trapped and taken into captivity to be used for scientific experiments. The scene is one of many that pulls at the viewers' heartstrings and pleads for sympathy for the apes, even though you know they will eventually become ruthless blood-hungry enemies to the people of the San Francisco Bay Area, where the film is set. It's a thought-provoking message from the start, and between the effects and the unsettling tone, both the mind and eyes have something to ponder long after the final credits roll. This tone is ultimately the movie's blessing and curse; while the film raises important questions about ethics and the costs of scientific research, it also loses course near the middle. During the climactic scenes, it's hard to imagine what exactly the apes are fighting for. Plus, some of the cheesy dialogue is too distracting not to bring a chuckle.
The supporting cast, which includes Freida Pinto, Lithgow, and Brian Cox, are all talented actors, but they are an afterthought to Serkis's performance as Caesar. The one standout exception may be Tom Felton, who has really mastered the art of being an unsympathetic villain and you can't help but cheer for his downfall. Franco's scenes in the lab were a little hard to believe, though he does shine in the tender father-son moments with both his onscreen father and his beloved ape.
One of the most incredible aspects of Apes is the motion capture technology used to give the CGI apes real facial and physical expressions. A whole slew of actors take on the ape characters and manage to imbue the animals with a range of believable emotions without it ever looking like there's actually a true human face underneath.
You do not need to be familiar with the earlier Planet of the Apes films to enjoy Rise of the Planet of the Apes, though there are a few obvious references for the fans. At one point Caesar is playing with a Statue of Liberty toy, for instance.
Despite a few ludicrous moments, a handful of over-the-top cheesy lines, and a storyline that goes a little haywire toward the end, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an enjoyable ride. It tows the line between video game-esque sequences and heartfelt moments carefully, while showing us the latest and greatest in moviemaking magic. It has its flaws, but it just may leave you very entertained.
Photos courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox