This, being a postviewous review, means that it is either A) a movie that is no longer in the theaters but is being watched for the first time by the reviewer; B) a movie that was seen by the reviewer in the theater but was then revisited soon after it was released on DVD/Blu-ray; or C) a “classic” (don’t eat our lunches if you don’t think a particular movie should be dubbed as such) that has been viewed so many times that a new review should be written and consumed.
This review falls under A).
Perhaps the surprise blockbuster in a Summer devoid of blockbusters, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RPOTA) manages to meet most of the hype it accrued when it was released in theaters back in August. I must say I was one of those who saw the trailer earlier in 2011 and saw that the Planet of the Apes franchise was getting a reboot (set in modern times no less) and simultaneously groaned and guffawed at how bad this movie looked. When I heard all the buzz it was getting from reviewers when it was released my interest was piqued but not so much as to where I needed to go to the cinema immediately. Thus a crucial trip to the Redbox was taken this past Tuesday and after having seen it I must say I am still shocked that RPOTA turned out to be a solid blockbuster.
In fact RPOTA really is exactly what you want out of movie one in a franchise. It shows the audience how everything got started, makes sure to explain it just enough to where it is plausible without going into too much explanation where it can be easily picked apart, and of course whets your appetite for more.
RPOTA, for all intents and purposes, is a movie of two mainish stories. The first is the human story, the one where James Franco (playing a scientist) is hellbent on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s because his father (John Lithgow) continues to deteriorate from the disease. The first 45 minutes or so rely heavily on the human story and the movie starts out quite slow because of it. Of course our main chimp protagonist, Caesar (motion-capped by the wonderful Andy Serkis) is introduced and we see him develop from a baby into a teen chimp during this time, but by all accounts Caesar takes a back seat until midway through. In fact you might almost consider this first part of the movie a sort of prologue for the rest. By the time we reach the end of this time span Franco has realized his drug does succeed, only to find that it ends up failing after this 8 year span and we are right back where we started, except with a teenage chimp.
By the time the movie really picks up we have flown through eight years, of which Franco and his long time girlfriend, Freida Pinto (he meets her after three years pass), have conveniently not aged a day while Caesar finally has reached puberty/adulthood. This is where the meat begins. After Franco’s poor neighbor (this is the second time so far in the movie where he is terrorized by Franco’s househould) gets his finger bitten off by Caesar, who is protecting the re-Alzheimer’sed Lithgow, Caesar is basically incarcerated in monkey jail. The warden just so happens to be Brian Cox and his underling Tom Felton (MALFOY!!!!!! Of Harry Potter movie fame). The human story takes a bit of a back seat as we watch Caesar try and adapt to his new environment with dumber and wilder chimps – and of course Malfoy. When Caesar gives the orangutan, who happens to know sign language, a knowing nod you know the movie is about to get real good.
We all kind of know how it goes from there. The most ridiculous thing in this movie doesn’t happen until the very last, wondrous scene. By now the Caesar has outsmarted everyone, made most of his monkey friends smart, and have made it to freedom. Mr. Scientist, James Franco, goes to the place he used to let Caesar play when he was growing up. Franco, now surrounded by genius monkeys, tells Caesar everything is going to be ok. Then the magic happens. Caesar pulls Franco in for the real thing and whispers in his ear! Yes, that’s right, Caesar has somehow learned to talk by the end of this movie, vocal chords be damned. HOWEVER, once Caesar gives his line what follows is sheer brilliance. Caesar backs away and goes to climb a redwood, while James Franco looks on, completely not shocked. No, Franco has got a “go get ’em youngblood” grin on his face and is completely unphased by the fact that Caesar, who he treated like a son, has just spoken in perfect English to him. It is almost as if Franco expected it to happen. Cinematic gold gentlemen, cinematic gold.
One last thing, remember the neighbor I mentioned above? He has lived next to Franco the entire eight years the movie spans. After three years the neighbor has to chase Caesar out of his garage because Caesar wants to try riding a bike after watching the neighbor’s children riding it in the street (monkey see, monkey do right?). Five years later he gets his finger bitten off by Caesar because Lithgow tries to drive the neighbor’s new mustang and the neighbor gets physical with Lithgow after wrecking the ride. You would think that after the first incident the neighbor would be wary, but now after the second incident you’d think he’d be ready to move. But don’t worry, all great things come in threes and this is no different. One of Franco’s lab partners gets sick due to the new, more aggressive Alzheimer’s medicine Franco develops after getting the go ahead to restart his project by his boss (after eight years of it being shut down and only ONE successful text subject in Franco’s dad). In any case the lab partner comes to Franco’s house to, most likely, show the inconveniently absent Franco that the new formula is too strong for the human immune system. The neighbor is roused from his property to see what the commotion is and, lo and behold, the lab partner coughs blood all over the neighbor. Poor guy. This though was actually somewhat clever, if they end up bringing it back into the fold in later sequels, it isn’t enough for the chimps to be smarter, but if a highly contagious and ultimately death inducing virus runs rampant through the humans and not through the chimps that would greatly level the playing field.
All-in-all the pros outweigh the cons for RPOTA. Once Caesar’s, the chimp, story picks up the movie gets going and becomes much more interesting. Serkis does a great job at capturing monkey mannerisms and it is definitely a wise directorial decision to have every ape, chimp, gorilla, etc. in the movie be motion-captured and special effectsed, as opposed to just having Caesar being the only one while trying to corral real life animals into doing what they wanted. While you can tell the monkeys are fake, it is not so glaring that it detracts from the movie and with all of the various monkeys being special effects it helps lend believability to the world. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for the casting or acting of James Franco.
I suspended my disbelief just fine when the apes become geniuses, but Franco playing a genius scientist was going too far. Franco is exactly who we think he is, every character he plays is kind of aloof, with a hint of goofiness and clumsiness (no matter how serious he is supposed to be), and always seems to be holding back a smirk. He should not be playing genius scientists. He is good at what he does, but there are just some things he shouldn’t be doing. And while Freida Pinto isn’t really given much to do here she doesn’t do much with what she’s given. She is there to be eye candy and give Franco a human character to play off of. There isn’t much meat on that bone for sure. Kudos, however, are due for John Lithgow, who does an amazing job portraying a person suffering from Alzheimer’s. He is believable without being too dramatic and has a certain charm without making the audience be utterly depressed by his condition. When he is “cured” he brings liveliness and excitement, of which the human characters are lacking throughout the movie.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes does what it sets out to do, relaunch a classic franchise while simultaneously explaining the ground work for the Planet of the Apes while also entertaining, eventually. There is nothing groundbreaking here, you are going to call into question your very existence or make any life altering changes after seeing it but RPOTA isn’t that kind of movie. It is a delightful romp that you can put in your movie player, turn your brain off and enjoy. For what it is, RPOTA is good and – in an incredibly down year for movies – it shines as being a well made, entertaining blockbuster.
On a 1-10 and +/- grading scale Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets a 7.