Despite their decline in quality, I’ve always been a fan of the Planet of the Apes films. The Tim Burton remake was questionable but the originals were pretty good and have generally left me with positive feelings. An entire world, well our world actually, populated and under the control of apes is something that intrigues me and truthfully, I’ve always wanted a prequel.
Unfortunately, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (yes, that’s quite a mouthful) is not the prequel that I was hoping for. If you come in expecting to be treated to an origin story showcasing how Earth fell to the intelligent mammals then you’re going to be quite disappointed. The title is rather misleading and a more apt title would have been Rise Of Caesar, because that’s really what this is.
James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a scientist working on the cure for Alzheimer’s. His motivation lies in his father Charles (John Lithgow), who is currently suffering from the disease. Will and his team are testing the cure on apes and are on the verge of a major breakthrough. Then disaster strikes as one of the apes escapes from the test facility and causes quite a bit of trouble.
Rodman’s boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), orders that the program be shut down and all the apes killed. His orders are carried out but with one exception, a baby ape named Caesar whose mother was a test subject for the Alzeimer’s cure. Rodman smuggles Caesar out of the facility and raises him at home.
We watch as Caesar grows up to become incredibly intelligent. He progresses at a rate much faster than any human and his evolution astounds Will. Everything seems to be going fine until Caesar has a violent outburst while trying to defend Charles. Law enforcement steps in and orders Caesar to be locked up. Will has no choice but to comply and so he sends Caesar away.
While in captivity, the young ape begins to realize that his intelligence is what’s going to set him free and he slowly starts to plan his escape. It’s not long before he comes to the conclusion that escape isn’t the final frontier. Motivated by the cruel treatment of the facility operators (Brian Cox and Tom Felton), Caesar decides that with the help of the other apes who are locked up with him, he can not only escape the facility, but start a full on revolution against the humans, starting with the city of San Francisco.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has one thing going for it, the apes. Admittedly, these creatures are brought to life magnificently by WETA (the effects team behind Avatar and Lord of the Rings, among others). I’ll give credit where credit is due, these guys are hands down the best in the business and the apes here are some of the best digital animals/creatures I’ve ever seen.
Now on one hand, this is great. Impressive effects are always fun to watch and the apes look and feel so real that it gives the film a lot more authenticity, which also makes it a bit more frightening since it feels more real. On the other hand though, the apes kind of take over the film. Human characters are cast to the side as the film really becomes a showcase for WETA’s work.
Some of the scenes are completely useless and nothing more than a blatant attempt to further show off the effects. If you want to flaunt your work in one or two scenes alright, that’s fine. But they really take it too far here. We know the apes are impressive and we know that the effects are excellent, you don’t have to give us a handful of completely aimless scenes to get the point across. At times it really does feel like a tech demo and while it’s neat at first, it does get annoying.
One thing that really stands out though is the emotion in these apes. The facial design of the apes displays so much emotion and we’re able to completely empathize with these creatures. Although he rarely speaks, we understand Caesar and become attached to him. So much is conveyed through emotion and even though he barely says a word, he is such a fully realized and fleshed out character. And that’s due to the excellent work done by WETA as well as the motion capture work done by Andy Serkis.
Astonishingly real apes aside, there’s not much here that’s worth your attention. There is far too much build up and director Rupert Wyatt draws the film out way longer than need be. At least 85% of the film’s runtime is focused on Caesar. We watch how he grows up, learns new things and evolves. The problem is, the film stresses Caesar’s evolution to the point where it becomes redundant.
Scene after scene we see Caesar showing off his smarts. It’s just one example after another and like the complaint I voiced above, it’s taken too far. We know that Caesar is smart, we get that he’s not like other apes, we don’t need it rammed down our throats. There were so many points where you felt like the actual uprising/revolt was about to happen but then it would just continue on with Caesar’s day to day activities. The mid section of the film especially is drawn out to the point where it become excruciatingly uncomfortable to sit through. Nothing happens to progress the plot.
Wyatt focuses way too much on Caesar’s evolution and instead, opts to dedicate only the last twenty minutes or so to the ape uprising, which is undoubtedly, what most of us came to see. There is so much build up that it gets boring, I sat there just waiting for the revolt to start and for the apes to take over Earth but it just never happened, until the very end that is.
Now, when it does happen, it’s a rather impressive and very well staged scene. The apes eventually do start their revolt, as expected, and what follows is an excellent segment that shows off what the film could have been. To see San Francisco being completely overrun by realistic looking apes is genuinely frightening and for about 20-25 minutes we get pure excitement, suspense and drama. The only problem is, it’s too little too late. By the time it happens, you’ll have already checked your watch multiple times.
The other issue is, despite the title, this film really doesn’t depict how the apes took over Earth. It touches on it, and shows you the very, and I mean very beginning of their revolt, but by the end, you’re still left wondering how exactly it happened. Now, the movie hints heavily at sequels and the story will clearly be expanded in future instalments so we will likely get a chance to see what really happened.
That being said, if you’re going to title the film Rise of the Planet of the Apes and call it a prequel, people go in expecting to see why Charlton Heston had to suffer at the paws of those damn dirty apes (I had to). Instead, the film really charts the rise of Caesar, from birth to when he assumes leadership over the apes.
I don’t want to spoil the ending but let’s just say that as the credits roll, the apes are still quite a ways away from taking over Earth. We have an idea of how they manage to take over and we can kind of picture how it happens but personally, I wanted to see it. I wanted to watch as Earth slowly falls into the hands of Caesar and his apes and how the balance of power shifted from the humans to the apes.
In terms of acting, script, plot and everything else that most movies rely on, it’s all fairly crummy. James Franco looks a bit less stoned than usual but still isn’t nearly believable enough to be playing a brilliant scientist. Tom Felton plays a one note character that mutters cringe worthy dialogue and single handedly butchers one of cinema’s greatest quotes.
Freida Pinto is a pretty face to look at but not much else. Like Felton, and Brian Cox, she is given nothing to work with and her character is more or less forgotten about as the film progresses. John Lithgow fares a bit better, giving us a couple tender moments, but like the other humans, his character is far too shallow to really engage with.
Overall, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intermittently entertaining with a few nice nods to the original series. The apes are damn impressive and the final segment is fantastic, even if some of the events are a bit too convenient/improbable. But aside from that, the film offers nothing. It’s boring, repetitive and completely does away with most of the things that are vital to quality filmmaking. Human characters are superfluous and too many scenes feel like showy tech demos for WETA.
In many ways, it actually feels like Avatar, a crummy film bolstered by stunning effects. For me personally, that just doesn’t cut it. I’m not against effects or anything but if you can’t craft a strong film around it, then why bother? No one wants to watch a two hour tech demo. Especially not one that carries a significant franchise name in its title.
Overall, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intermittently entertaining with a few nice nods to the original series. The apes are impressive, but that's it.