Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (8/6/11)

Movie Poster: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay by Pierre Boulle

James Franco as Will Rodman
Freida Pinto as Caroline Aranha
John Lithgow as Charles Rodman
Andy Serkis as Caesar

How long is Rise of the Planet of the Apes? 105 minutes.
What is Rise of the Planet of the Apes rated? PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language.

CLR Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Movie Still: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

An adequate summer movie: big, pretty and little else.

As summer is winding down around us, so is blockbuster season. Studios are prepping audiences for next summer’s big releases and autumn’s crop of horror flicks. Meanwhile, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been released after the last big popcorn movies of the season, Captain America and Cowboys and Aliens. Why we needed another Planet of the Apes movie, I don’t know. That horse kicked the bucket and has been thoroughly beaten for the last few decades. It’s okay, though: this reboot is a perfectly adequate summer movie.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, gifted young scientist Will Rodman (elusive everyman James Franco) struggles to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease while the illness decimates his formerly brilliant father (John Lithgow). Gen-Sys tests Will’s breakthrough drug ALZ-112 on chimpanzees. The drug is built to assist the brain in repairing itself, effectively stopping Alzheimer’s in its tracks. The results, as in any sci-fi scenario, are astonishing. But when one ape becomes aggressive, greedy CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts down the trials. Here’s where everything really starts to go awry: Will ends up with a baby chimp named Caesar who was dosed in utero with the drug. Caesar speeds rapidly through cognitive development living in a beautiful San Francisco home – it’s entirely implausible that anyone could hide a pet chimpanzee in a suburban neighborhood for eight years, but we’ll let that slide. Of course Caesar comes to realize he’s little more than a trapped animal, and when he ends up in the local primate shelter he begins to enlist other apes in his struggle for freedom.

The story is, at the very least, completely silly. But the story isn’t what gets people in theater seats these days (the movie made a solid $1.25 million in midnight shows); it’s the visual effects. Weta Digital, the studio that brought us Avatar, made a bunch of damn dirty apes look frighteningly realistic. The fantastic Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, plays Caesar – and Serkis is a genius. The ape looks exactly the way you’d figure a creature in the midst of a rapid-fire evolutionary jump would look. He moves the way you see chimps move in the zoo, but with an added humanity. His facial expressions, created digitally by Weta, are downright eerie; audiences in 1968 may have been stunned by the makeup effects of the original Planet of the Apes, but that movie (classic though it may be) looks like child’s play in comparison. I’m generally not a proponent for heavily digitized film characters – we seem to be losing the subtle art of makeup. But while Rise of the Planet of the Apes is occasionally distractingly digitized, the effects don’t detract from the tale being told (mostly because the tale isn’t that important).

Franco, whose gig as Academy Awards host earned him jeers, must’ve needed a paycheck. That man is attending college classes full-time, acting on daytime soaps, and continuing in the movie biz. He basically phones it in, but that’s okay. It’s not his fault, he didn’t write this movie or the flop that was Your Highness. He was just doing his job. (If you sense a raised eyebrow, that’s because you should.) The insanely beautiful Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) makes a totally unnecessary appearance as Will’s love interest Caroline. Costume designer Renée April committed a crime against nature in clothing Pinto; a smart woman can still dress in clothing that flatters her. John Lithgow, whose turn as the Trinity Killer on the last season of “Dexter” brought out the fangirl in some of us, is great as always. Harry Potter’s Tom Felton is unfortunately just another version of Draco Malfoy, an unnecessarily cruel bully who gets what he deserves.

The movie’s major flaws are its pacing and its complete superficiality. The story takes place over nearly a decade, and the only character who ages at all is Caesar. There’s too much information squeezed into a tight runtime, and characters remain static in favor of pretty effects. Most of the characters are pointlessly evil – it’s a jab at big pharma and animal research, certainly, but it’s unnecessary to continually shove it down the audience’s collective throat. There’s also a “big scary virus” twist that isn’t fully explored; this leaves the door wide open for a sequel, for better or worse.

Fortunately, what audiences want around this time of year is something big and pretty. The writing isn’t great, the story is quite ridiculous, and the acting is only passable (with the exception of Serkis). But Weta gave us the kind of effects worth drooling over, and if all you’re in search of is a massive, beautiful no-brainer, then this is the movie for you. There’s something curiously triumphant about the apes’ battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, about the way they ascend the enormous redwoods of Muir Woods. It’s uncanny to watch very real human expressions on chimp and orangutan faces. When Caesar spoke, the woman two seats down from me said “WHOA” to the completely silent theater – and that’s a fair way to sum it up. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a good movie, but it will probably make you go “whoa.” Sometimes that’s all you need.

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