Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

August 4, 2011 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

This review was supposed to be further back in my backlog of to-do posts, but I’m moving it right to the top because I can’t stop thinking about it.

The reboot origins film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, had been my ‘most anticipated movie of the year’ for months ever since I caught a glimpse of the awesome trailer.  I had always been somewhat interested in the Apes franchise, even though I had only seen the 1968 original and the entertaining but slightly misguided Tim Burton 2001 remake.  But this one was a must-see: an ingenious present-day setting, seamless digital effects, what appeared to be all-out action, and Andy Serkis (Gollum, Kong) doing motion capture for the lead ape, Caesar.

With such high expectations, it would have easy to have been disappointed.  But no, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was everything I could have hoped for and more.

Those who have seen the trailers and/or are familiar with the franchise will have a fairly good idea of what happens in this film.  James Franco plays Will Rodman, a young scientist working on a cure for a debilitating human illness.  The clinical trials are conducted on apes, and unexpected side-effects arm the mistreated subjects with human-like intelligence.  And you don’t need much intelligence (human or otherwise) to guess what happens next.

Ordinarily, knowing how a story unfolds dampens the excitement of a film, but surprisingly not in this case.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes the audience straight into the action and doesn’t let up.  The storytelling is so efficient that I found myself utterly engrossed throughout the 110-minute running time, never getting the feeling that I knew exactly what was going to happen next or pausing to contemplate potential gaps in logic.

Of course, a main reason to go see this film is the special effects, which are amongst the best I have ever seen.  No more humans in clunky ape make-up — these apes look creepily, frighteningly real, and the range of facial expressions they exhibit make them easy to connect with emotionally whilst keeping us wary of what they are capable of.  Andy Serkis as Caesar, in particular, is absolutely mesmerising as the true ‘star’ of the film.  You know the effects team have done a good job when you don’t even think about the quality of the effects until the credits start rolling — you just take it for granted that what you’re seeing on the screen is real.

Having saturated the film in praise, I have to admit that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have flaws.  I’m not sure if it was miscasting or just a poorly written character, but James Franco’s human scientist came across as a fairly weak protagonist.  I never really felt that the bond between him and Caesar was as strong as it ought to have been.

Perhaps it was intentional to allow the apes to be propelled into the forefront, as the rest of the human characters were all rather weak — either cardboard cut-outs or over-the-top stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo!).  Freida Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) as Franco’s love interest was almost invisible — you could have written her out of the script entirely and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  The only human character that made a connection with me was the great John Lithgow as Franco’s father.

However, my issues with the human characters aren’t as crucial as they may seem, for Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really Caesar’s story, told from his point of view.  I just find it bizarre for me to wonder whether it’s a good thing that the apes were more human than the humans…

Finally, the all-important rating.  Usually it would be inconceivable for me to contemplate giving a film like this anything more than 4 stars.  Sure it’s clever, entertaining, exciting and visually spectacular, but it’s still a flawed movie about apes taking over the planet.  But you know what?  I’ve looked through all my reviews this year and I can honestly say there is no other film that I’ve liked more and enjoyed more in 2011 than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  So what the heck.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Note that this film is considered a ‘new origins’ prequel to the 1968 original (and has numerous delicious allusions to it) because it does not match up with the storyline in any of the subsequent films.  In many ways, this is a much better origins story that reflects the rate of our current (frighteningly rapid) advances in technology and sets the stage for at least a couple of mind-blowing sequels (can’t wait already!).