Save Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, no film in the last 20 years so brilliantly reinvigorated and recaptured interest in a franchise more than Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a thrilling opening act that’s equally captivating and leaves you anxiously awaiting the next installment.
Make no mistake, this is every bit the origin type film moviegoers have become overly familiar with since the boon of the comic book movie era back in 2002 with Spider-Man. And much like a comic book film, Rise’s biggest payoff comes in the final act as the hero accepts his destiny and rises up to face his enemies.
But unlike most takes of the franchise, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver opt not to place the emphasis on the humans — instead making the focal character Caesar (Andy Serkis, The Prestige) — a very special chimpanzee.
Desperate to find a cure for Alzheimer’s to help his ailing father, Will (James Franco, Oz the Great and Powerful) is pushing for his employer Gen Sys to get his experimental drug out to the mass market. The drug, ALZ, not only repairs damaged brain cells, but also enhances brain functions. Test trials on apes responded fine and Will’s boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo, Lee Daniels’ The Butler), is equally encouraged by the results.
But things get screwy when the main test subject, Bright Eyes, becomes irrationally violent and tears through Gen Sys headquarters on a destructive rampage. Director Rupert Wyatt smoothly foreshadows how dangerous and powerful just one ape can be to give us a sense of the potential threat of an ape army. The CGI work is remarkable on all of the apes making their movements both majestic and somewhat frightening. It makes the 2001 Planet of the Apes film seem laughable for using the outdated method of having actors wearing ape costumes.
Perhaps even more impressive than all of the technical feats is the film actually allows Franco to be a sympathetic character, which has been a struggle for the actor who tends to play more smarmy, unlikable figures.
It’s not until the other test apes are euthanized that Will learns that Bright Eyes was only protecting her newborn baby and not experiencing some unanticipated side effect from ALZ.
Will brings the chimp home to his father, Charles (John Lithgow, offering a very classy take on the debilitating disease), who takes an instant liking to the new arrival, who he names Caesar. Will soon realizes Caesar’s intelligence is enhanced thanks to the ALZ in Bright Eyes’ system allowing Caesar to communicate via sign language and relate in a more human manner. Will’s girlfriend, Caroline (Frieda Pinto), starts to wonder though as the years progress if Caesar wouldn’t prefer to be among his own kind.
Jaffa and Silver’s script is all about relationships and it’s what makes the movie so much more than a throwaway action film. There’s the bond between Will and Charles, Will and Caesar and Caesar to his fellow ape.
A misunderstanding forces Caesar to be sent to a primate sanctuary, under the care of its warden (Brian Cox) and his cruel son (Tom Felton, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). For the first time, Caesar experiences life like his fellow apes and he doesn’t like what he sees and sets about rallying his fellow captive apes to achieve freedom.
Serkis is amazingly effective in conveying Caesar’s growth as a childlike chimp through the moody ‘teen’ period to the self-assured and confident adult.
For all of the deserved accolades Serkis received from his work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, his performance as Caesar stands as some of his career best.
The film only stumbles a bit in the big finale mainly since Wyatt’s more intimate story doesn’t allow for the full on action mayhem spectacle of apes vs. man we’re anticipating. Rise’s climactic battle serves as a precursor to a much larger scale war in the pending sequels and while what we do get is exciting, it’s not at the scope we’ll want to see later.
But as the opening salvo in an unexpected Apes relaunch, this is a stellar first chapter and one that should spawn a new generation of POA fans.
Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Photo Credit: 20th Century Fox
Order the film on Blu-Ray here: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Two-Disc Edition Blu Ray + DVD/Digital Copy Combo) [Blu-ray]