Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis
While I’m hardly as ga-ga about Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes as a lot of reviewers seem to be, I did find it a surprisingly agreeable afternoon’s entertainment. That’s considerably more than I had expected, based on the trailers and the whole idea of the need for a Planet of the Apes origin story (even if cribbed from 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). I readily admit, however, that I have never much cared for the original 1968 film and had had quite enough of the whole thing after Beneath the Planet of the Apes with its simultaneously depressing and amusingly dumb ending. I know many people consider the original a classic. It struck me then—and it strikes me now—as too campy and jokey, but that’s another argument for another day. I cite this only so the reader may gauge that I am not a fan.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has all the appearances of having been made by fans. It even duplicates the old lettering style of the originals (which in all fairness, the much maligned Tim Buton 2001 film did, too) and it drops in a few casual in-jokes (these I leave the viewer to find). But it takes advantage of modern technology to bring an increased realism to the proceedings—and, for the most part, this works. Even the use of motion-capture—you know, that process that has helped produce a string of uncomfortably creepy-looking Robert Zemeckis movies—works here, which isn’t surprising since this was handled by Weta Digital, the folks who pulled off Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong in the 2005 King Kong. It undoubtedly helped that primate protagonist Caesar was brought to motion-capture life by Andy Serkis, who had been both Gollum and Kong.
The film is also well-cast, which is a good thing because it’s not all that well-written. Far too many of the characters are simply there as plot devices—notably the Alzheimer-afflicted Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), the venal primate-center owner John Landon (Brian Cox) and his “just plain mean” son Dodge (Tom Felton, best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies). Others—most notably love interest/ape doctor Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto, Slumdog Millionaire)—are simply not developed. What little characterization any of these characters have comes from the performers—and even there it’s an uphill battle.
But do the characterizations really matter? Probably not. Despite the fact that the film theoretically has something to say about the arrogance of mankind, it really never gets any deeper than the same thing Claude Rains said on his deathbed in James Whale’s The Invisible Man way back in 1933, “I meddled in things that man must leave alone.” The whole spin on accidental genetic engineering due to Alzheimer’s research isn’t exactly groundbreaking stuff. No, what we have here is at bottom your basic underdog—or undersimian—story in which the put-upon hero of the piece just happens to be a super-smart chimpanzee whom the viewer has been conditioned to root for. The upshot of it all is simply that we’re ready to cheer on the apes in an apes-versus-humans scenario.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, however, solid, engaging entertainment. Some parts of it are quite creatively done—especially the arrival of the apes on a neighborhood street signalled by a sudden shower of falling leaves—and nearly all of it works on its own level. That it inevitably feels like the set-up for an almost certain sequel goes with the pop-culture territory these days, so it’s pointless to complain. As summer movies go, this is just fine—and refreshingly not in 3D. Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language.