– Summary –
Director : Rupert Wyatt
Year Of Release : 2011
Principal Cast : James Franco, Andy Serkis (as Caesar), Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, David Oyelowo, Tom Felton, Tyler Labine, David Hewlett.
Approx Running Time : 105 Minutes
Synopsis: Born from a Chimpanzee undergoing radical brain testing, a young ape is raised by a human scientist trying to reverse degenerative brain disease – only to discover that humans rule their world with often cruel intensity. The young ape soon seizes control of the apes at a large containment facility, before his assault on our world begins.
What we think : Terrific, terrifying sci-fi adventure is essentially the “origin” of the Planet of The Apes franchise, with state-of-the art special effects. Thankfully, the production avoided the now clunky “man in suit” method of portraying sentient, intelligent apes, opting this time for fully CGI versions, and I have to say, it really, really works. While the humans in this film are pretty 1-dimensional, the narrative bustles along with a rapid-fire pace towards the inevitable – and breathtaking – conclusion, ensuring the audience is not only entertained, but also forced to consider our position in our world and our treatment of it: a moral fable not without some truth behind it. Rise is awesome.
Before beginning this review, I feel I have a duty of honesty to admit that the Planet of The Apes films have never really been my thing – I have always appreciated the Charlton Heston original, of course, because it is indeed a classic, but the inferior sequels and the turgid Tim Burton remake all made me realize that it was a franchise I had very little interest in. The characters, the narrative, the world itself just slid past me with a deep sigh of “meh.” So I come to Rise Of The Planet of the Apes with very low expectations – low except for the rather high expectation for the quality of the special effects, of course. Each and every trailer for this film indicated that regardless of the story or the acting, at the very least the visual effects were as realistic as possible in bringing super-intelligent apes to life. I remember saying to a friend while watching Peter Jackson’s King Kong a few years back, that if they could do this with one ape, it wouldn’t be long before a reinvented Planet of The Apes franchise came along – and I was right. He owes me ten bucks. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is most assuredly a product of the Hollywood Machine – it’s a join-the-dots human story interspersed with an infinitely more interesting Ape story; this fact alone – that the apes of the film are more interesting than the humans – would give a cynical critic pause, but the brushstrokes of director Rupert Wyatt’s sharply directed think-piece are broad enough to ensure this films’ legacy will remain an enduring one in the Apes franchise’s long, checkered history.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist developing a virulent serum that has the potential to reverse degenerative brain functions in humans, potentially eradicating diseases such as Alzheimers – and bringing an enormous financial windfall to the company he works for. While testing the serum on chimpanzees, Will discovers that one of the serums actually works, but before he can prove it, one of his key ape subjects flies into a rage and creates chaos during a presentation to the company’s financial backers. In disgrace, Will’s studies are effectively shut down, and the chimps all put down – all save one, a young baby chimp whom Will takes home in secret. Will also decides to step up his studies with human testing – Wills father Charles (John Lithgow) has advanced Alzheimers, and the serum Will uses reverses the degradation of the elder man within days. The baby chimp, Caesar, spends the next few years growing in Wills house, his intelligence increasing rapidly. However, the serum fails to work, as the human immune system soon overpowers it, and Charles reverts back to his former mental capacity. Caesar (motion capture performed by Gollum himself, Andy Serkis – who also portrayed the titular King Kong in the aforementioned Jackson film), in a moment of anger, accidentally injures a man whilst trying to protect Charles from harm, and as a result, Caesar is locked away in a primate sanctuary (which is more like a prison) under the care of John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton), the latter of whom is a vindictive, cruel asshole who treats the apes in custody with disdain and sadistic violence. Will, in desperation, develops a new, more powerful serum, which is usurped by Will’s greedy boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo) who’s seeking a more speedy result. But when Caesar escapes the sanctuary and steals samples of the serum to create his own army of intelligent apes, Will must try to stop the inevitable rise of Caesar’s retaliation.
It’s hard to imagine the leap Rupert Wyatt took to get here. His debut feature was the relatively low budget – and low key – The Escapist, a prison-break film starring Brian Cox and Joseph Feinnes; it’s hard to see how that film would have led 20th Century Fox to say “yeah, this is the guy to direct our reboot of the Apes franchise”, but by God I think they’ll be patting themselves on the back for going with him. Wyatt’s direction of this film is a perfect example of how to craft a major Hollywood blockbuster and play to the story’s strengths. Rise is problematic from a human point of view, but the astonishing visual effects, backed up by Andy Serkis’s wonderful portrayal of the central Ape, Caesar, and the large-scale action set-pieces, more than make up for the deficit this film has in its non-ape characters. Wyatt crafts this film with as many money-shots as he can manage, all the while ensuring the film doesn’t simply become a showreel for the effects companies who worked on it – this isn’t a Star Wars prequel, this is a bona fide sci-fi epic with a point to prove. For what he’s managed to achieve here, with the stunning reinvention of an entire franchise for the new millennium, and at the same time wiping out the memory of Tim Burton’s abominable attempt to do similar, I congratulate Wyatt in this, his sophomore effort.
First, the negative. Should be a short paragraph. The script, written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, brings a sense of awe and wonder to the plight of the apes of the title, with plenty of focus on the main star, Caesar, yet the script fails to really develop the human characters well enough. James Franco is a competent enough actor – he proved so in 127 Hours – as Will, the man who in trying to save humanity may inadvertently end up destroying it, but he’s a hollow individual we never really get to know. His feelings, his motives, seem contrived and less organic than they should be, with the oft-used science fiction convention of trying to save his own father (analogous to saving the entire human race) coming to the fore quite quickly here. Will’s girlfriend, a veterinarian he meets after Caesar is injured by Will’s neighbor, is Caroline, played by Freida Pinto, and never a more secondary character will you see – Caroline seems to exist simply for Will to bounce exposition off of, and there’s simply no chemistry between the two to draw emotional content from. In fact, none of the human characters are anything but cardboard props enabling Wyatt to hinge his story off Caesar, more a series of walking cliches than actual people. Tom Felton, fresh from cowardly fleeing the scene of battle in Harry Potter’s final opus, The Deathly Hallows Part 2, plays the cruel and vindictive Dodge, young keeper of the keys at the ape sanctuary Caesar is imprisoned after attacking a man in the street. Felton seems to have been typecast, and here’s he’s nothing more than Draco Malfoy with a taser. His father, played by Brian Cox, has very, very little to do, as do almost all the rest of the cast. John Lithgow draws the maximum sympathy for his portrayal of Will’s afflicted father, and although I got the sense the relationship between father and son might have been a strength of the film, the script (such as it is) doesn’t really develop this much at all. So if you’re looking for a criticism of the film, mine would be that the humans are the least believable of the entire bunch.
Andy Serkis, however, portraying Caesar in a mo-cap studio somewhere, and backed up by the digital artists who transformed his performance into a stunning recreating of an actual chimpanzee, is the true star of this film. Caesar is the latest CGI wunderkind, the kind of brilliantly realized and executed visual effect that brings the heart and soul of this film to dazzling, pixel-perfect life. Caesar’s performance is far and away more believable than any of the humans in this film, and it’s to Wyatt’s credit that he realizes this and hones the film’s story around him wholly and solely. Serkis, once more bringing the digital character to life, has made an art form of this technology, and while he can’t take sole credit, he’s certainly the part of the role on which everything else hangs. No animator in the world could bring Caesar to life more brilliantly if they didn’t have Serkis’s marvelous, nuanced and truly human emotional quality behind it. He’s backed up by a number of other digital mo-cap performers, namely Karin Konoval as Maurice, an elder Orangutan, and Richard Ridings as Buck, a massive Gorilla, as well as a plethora of others to numerous to mention here – all the apes are wonderfully realized on-screen, and while I watched this I kept thinking of each of their in-franchise parallel from previous films, to my enjoyment and appreciation.
Wyatt’s also realized that brevity is the brother of brilliance: Rise moves at a fast clip, there’s almost no fat on this film from a storytelling point of view. It’s a lean, mean monster of a film, skirting the more obvious cliche and keeping the narrative focus on that which moves the story along the fastest. This film could have been a love-letter to the franchise’s long history, and while there were a couple of nods to the previous films (watch for Tom Felton’s take on one of the Apes films’ most iconic lines), for the most part, this goes in an entirely new direction. It’s a slow build of tension, from the relatively grande opening sequence to the lengthy, post-escape “rise” of the apes; Wyatt’s grasp of camera technique and editing is fantastic, with a surprising skill in dealing with what is a gargantuan amount of non-existent live action material as well. The majority of the ape effects are superb, with only a few shots (several early jungle moments feel a bit fake) coming across as wobbly compared to the rest of the film. As the film progresses, you stop thinking of the apes as visual effects, and completely buy their existence within the film frame itself. However, instead of going the George Lucas “look at what I did” style of film-making, Wyatt opts for a realistic, hyper-kinetic rhythm behind the camera, unafraid to go hand-held or tight focus to draw an emotion from a shot. It’s digital porn without the porn, and by God it looks wonderful.
Another of the films’ most thrilling elements isn’t with what we see at all – the gorgeous score by Scottish-born composer Patrick Doyle. Doyle was also responsible for the broad-scale score of Thor, as well as taking the reins from John Williams with Harry Potter, doing music duty on The Goblet of Fire; Doyle was most recently tapped by Pixar to bring his heritage to bear on the upcoming film Brave. Rise’s score is anthemic, a true work of genius in bringing the iconic jungle rhythms into the cityscape of San Francisco, and elevating the story even higher with it’s revelatory effect. It’s haunting, lyrical and powerful, and a perfect score for an Apes film. I should also mention the wonderful lensing by DOP Andrew Lesnie, who also shot the Lord Of The Rings films for Peter Jackson, as well as the Will Smith starrer I Am Legend and Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender. Lesnie’s use of color and lighting in this film is excellent, really drawing the viewer in with either warmth or cold, cool blue; it’s a visual treat to watch, visual effects notwithstanding. Wyatt’s editing team, Conrad Buff and one of my favorite choppers, Mark Goldblatt, do a terrific job keeping this film on point – I’ve already mentioned the lack of fat in this film’s narrative, and these two are responsible for the majority of that happening. They keep the film moving along with startling speed, and it’s to their credit many of the sequences are as effective as they are. They aren’t afraid to cut into a key shot, not afraid to minimize any uncanny valley effects with judicious use of the editing bay: Rise flows and sprints with equal measure power and melancholy.
All this positive spin, however, wouldn’t amount to much if it wasn’t for a fact I think will lend itself to a continuous viewing audience down the years here – Rise Of The Planet of The Apes is an accessible film even to those who aren’t intimately familiar with the franchise’s history. You don’t need to have even seen Charlton Heston’s performance in the original to appreciate this film – and that, I think, is the mark of a truly great reboot; hell, it’s the mark of a truly awesome franchise film overall, of you can watch it as a stand-alone piece, free of the baggage franchise films often come with. It’s exciting, tense and well made, a solid escapist film with plenty to say about humanity and our treatment of animals. Yet, for all its thematic cruelty, the film isn’t overtly preachy, a fact I was relieved about. Rise is a top notch sci-fi film, solid in execution and, even if it stumbles with its human characters, a well written social fable with plenty of undertones of warning. Most definitely one of the better films of 2011.