Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

by Will Nepper

If you’d have told me a decade ago that there was any banana juice left in the Planet of the Apes franchise, I’d have expected you meant it in a straight-to-video capacity. Tim Burton’s Apes — just like his Alice and Willy Wonka — seemed to reflect a filmmaker with little understanding of what made the source material great. (And when I apply the adjective “great” to anything PotA-related, I don’t mean it so much as in a “cinematic-achievement” way, as I do a “Tony-the-Tiger” way.)

The PotA series is beloved by many but not because its all that special. It’s a sci-fi movie that was in the right place at the right time. Its effects were state-of-the-art and fairly convincing. (I mean, if man evolved halfway back to ape … I could see it looking like that I guess.)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may represent the first shot of dignity the series has ever been allowed. It’s a well-acted, well-structured prequel that establishes a loose origin story for a series that actually deserves one. (How did those apes get so smart anyway?)

James Franco looks a little bored as some top-shelf genetic medical mad scientist-lite type of guy who has invented what is supposed to be the “cure to Alzheimer’s” (or just “The Cure” in the original trailer). When tested on apes they find that its brain-building properties turn chimps into little cheeping Steven Hawkings! Cool! –wait! Not cool! That’s how the Statue of Liberty got buried!

When things go to shit in the test-monkeys-to-cure-Alzheimer’s wing of Franco’s Mega-Medical-Corp employer, he finds himself adopting Caesar, the first recipient of the AMAZING only-temporarily-cures-Alzheimer’s-but-makes-monkeys-rule-the-Earth serum.

Franco is impressed with Caesar’s ability to communicate, emote, and make it okay to like CGI again (and let’s not forget how uh-dor-a-bullll and natural he looks in kids’ clothes!) that he decides to bring the hairy kid home to meet Dad (John Lithgow, underplaying it for as change) who — and you may be one step ahead of me here — happens to have Alzheimer’s.

But as much as Franco seems to love living with his genetically-altered monkey-old-man sitcom-ready duo, his genetic animal specialist or whatever girlfriend has the good sense to mention that this situation might be on a collision course with an action-packed last reel. After an unfortunate incident in which Caesar damn near takes Franco’s neighbor apart he’s sent away to an ape … storage … facility? … or Hell Zoo? … or some Animal Planet version of the Truman Show? I don’t know…it’s been a few weeks since I screened the movie.

When Caesar sees that he’s rejected by both human and ape alike, he makes like Charlie Bronson and takes the law(s of nature) into his own hands. After making friends with a gorilla and an orangutan, he breaks out, steals the secret formula and blesses all of his monkey pad-mates with the gift of accelerated evolution. You can guess what happens next? Or maybe you can’t — either way, Rise is worth your time.

Its story is constructed with the dramatic heft found in a lot of late 70s sci-fi without sacrificing the stuff that makes you want to see a PotA movie, like battles and clumsy sociological subtext.

Fans of any of the Apes’ earlier incarnations with a keen eye are endlessly rewarded with references, in-jokes and meaningful connections. For a broad example, Rise establishes the Gorilla-as-militant, orangutan-as-thinker, chimps-as-sensitive-and-kind dynamic that runs consistently through all Ape endeavors.

Some of the dialogue is clunky and as much as I usually enjoy James Franco (really!), I didn’t buy him in Rise. It kinda seemed like hiring Cheech Marin to play Albert Schweitzer. Beyond that though, I don’t have many bad things to say about Rise. It represents the best that the science fiction genre has to offer; the binding together of known science and fantasy in a way that takes hold of the imagination. Add to that what may be the most convincing digitally-rendered characters I’ve ever seen (How about that motion-capture technology? Amiright?), an impressive (if not completely absurd) action finale, and it makes sense that Rise has become the sleeper hit of a summer stuffed with crap you couldn’t pay me to see…and Captain America. Grade: B 

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Posted on August 22, 2011, in REViEW and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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