Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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Though I doubted the need for another movie in this series, it turns out that not only is Rise of the Planet of the Apes the best in the saga since the iconic first film, it is also the best multiplex popcorn movie I’ve seen all summer. It’s the best kind of sci-fi: plausible but just out there enough to be wondrous, and raises all sorts of ethical and moral questions that don’t overwhelm the simple pleasures of the story.

The film doesn’t really concern the “rise” of a planet controlled by apes; it’s more like the birth. The five-film cycle of Planet of the Apes films, which presented itself as a time-loop Moebius strip, covered this in the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I saw that when I was a kid, and don’t remember much about it, other than that a virus had killed off all dogs and cats and people kept apes as pets, who got tired of being servants, I guess.

This film, with a good script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, directed by Rupert Wyatt, hearkens back to a familiar science-fiction template–the hubris of the scientist. Following the long footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein, a biochemist played by James Franco has been working on a cure for Alzheimer’s. He has a personal reason for doing so, as his father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease. He has tested a drug on chimpanzees which makes them extra smart. His initial subject is killed for being aggressive, but it turns out she left a baby.

That baby, called Caesar and featuring the motion-captured movements of Andy Serkis, turns out to be one smart chimp. Franco keeps him as a pet, and marvels at his brainpower. But when Caesar, defending Lithgow in a neighborhood squabble, gets sent to an ape refuge, he realizes he’s been had.

The sequences where Caesar plots his rebellion and escape are the best parts of the movie, and play like an old prison drama. It is here that nods are made to the original film, with two of the best-known lines being quoted, and even a cameo by Charlton Heston is inserted. I wonder how many got the joke that the orangutan was named Maurice, an obvious nod to actor Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zeus in that old film.

The resulting show down on the Golden Gate bridge is tense and well-shot and edited, and has the best gorilla death scene since the original King Kong. Given the strong reviews and good business, a sequel, which is set up in the closing credits, should be forthcoming and worth watching.

As for the CGI, which replaces the notion of actors in monkey suits and makeup, I’m of two minds about it. During the opening scene, in which Caesar’s mother is capture in Africa, the obviousness of the special effects distracted me. There was never a moment I didn’t realize that I wasn’t looking at real chimps or gorillas or what have you. But when the apes were viewed close-up, the work with the eyes was effective, and made it seem as if we were looking at real characters. It was always possible to know what Caesar was thinking.

I also appreciated how the film, while being a good action flick, also addresses the slippery ethics of using animals as drug test subjects. I’m sure PETA has given their approval. Though it is science fiction, I am dubious about a drug that makes an ape smart over night. You’d think they’d have to have a little schooling first.

My grade for Rise of the Planet of the Apes: A-.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

31 responses »

  1. Best since the original prob doesnt sound as good when thinking about it as none of the sequels (let alone Burton’s instantly forgettable remake) are considered to be anything special.

    I’ve seen the first two sequels – don’t mind the first one despite the plot being largely a rehash of the original – had some notable bits and characters and an ending memorable for how cynical it was. The 2nd sequel is amusing and clever although nothing startling.

  2. I’m shocked that Slim and I finally agree on a “summer” movie. He even rated it higher than the B grade I gave it in my review.

    My biggest issue with it is the human element… and yes I know the movie is about the apes, but the human characters (Franco’s included) aren’t written or performed all that well. Still, it’s a fantastic film and for once I’m happy to lose the week’s box office contest because Apes did so damn well.

  3. Best summer flick this year so far. Franco does a very good job and Serkis and the animation are fantastic. The directing is great – especially the big Golden Gate Bridge sequence. There are some too predictable parts and some cheesy moments, but there’s a lot more good than there is bad.

    B+

  4. A- Slim…..really?
    So much of this cliche-riddled, decent enough movie is, well…pretty cliche-riddled.
    So people weren’t expecting it to be quite this decent, so they’re over-praising it just because it wasn’t as poor as many thought it would be? This is the prism we view movies through now?
    And our friend the CEO of Gen-Sys or whatever cliche name the company was died a much more horrific death than the silverback.
    As they were preparing to make their break, some of it was laughable.
    And our weapons didn’t work because of a bus and some fog?
    A-….really?

  5. I’m with you, filmman. “Decent enough” is a good way to put it. It’s watchable, but it started breaking down for me the second the end credits were done. By the time I got home, I had gone from “impressed” to “indifferent.”

    Did Gensys not have any security controls at all, by the way? I mean, let’s just smuggle lab animals out. Take some experimental drugs home, too, while you’re at it, no one will notice. A guy is exposed to a new “aggressive” virus? Take it easy, he’s probably fine. Oh, you’ve been experimenting on humans with stolen drugs? Good for you!

    The big laugh of it all is that they were so upset when the chimp gets shot at the beginning. This is a problem why? They shut down a lucrative drug for no reason whatsoever and kill all their lab animals without even an investigation. In reality, they wouldn’t have given up a drug that promising without a big damn fight. They would have looked for any possible reason to keep it going, and when it turned out that the chimp had a secret baby, that would have been it. They’d just blame it on the handlers (legitimately, actually) and move on. It’s called “scAPEgoating.” See? They could have even made a joke of it.

    But when the guy is experimenting on humans without approval – and with stolen drugs – that gets a pat on the back? Really? That would be a legitimate legal problem. Lord knows how many laws that broke. But no big deal, so long as it works! Now all the sudden it’s too important to worry about the details!

    That whole plotline was just very lazy.

  6. And what went from Operatic, Intense and EPIC in the original…THIS was our planet, and there was our symbol of freedom…how the hell did we come to that?!……..the reason becomes just a knock-off of some second-rate “Rage Virus” idea stolen from 28 Days Later, who stole it from so many others who stole it from….yeah. This movie was really pretty poor. I actually give Burton’s ending more credence.

  7. Hey, I enjoyed it. Too bad you guys didn’t, your loss. And the original had one of the greatest plot problems of all time, that make this one’s look like simple: all the time Heston is on the planet, it never occurs to him that it might be Earth, because the apes are speaking ENGLISH????!!!!!

  8. I’ve never seen the original. You’re probably right, but who knows how far the English language will spread in the future? Once upon a time, it must have seemed unlikely that English would be the dominant language in this part of the world today.

    Besides, you have to make a mental allowance for that anyway, since whatever’s spoken 2500 years in the future, here or elsewhere, it almost certainly won’t be something familiar to us today. Look at how much English has changed in the last 1000 years.

  9. Yes, you have to make a mental allowance, otherwise the movie isn’t possible. In the book, Taylor (Heston) learns the ape’s language, but that would have slowed down the film. But the point remains that astronauts have crash-landed on a planet, the inhabitants speak the exact same language they do, and it never occurs to them that they might be on Earth. Because the movie is otherwise good, viewers let it slide. When a movie is not so good, it gives one time to stack up inconsistencies and other problems, as Brian did. Honestly, I never thought about the security at Gen Sys, because I was too busy enjoying the movie. I was bothered by the instant effects of the drug, and the common movie error of people (or, in this case, apes) jumping through glass (which is probably the unbreakable kind used in building exteriors) without cutting themselves to ribbons. It’s almost as common a mistake as characters out-running fireballs.

  10. I think Slim is joking here (3 posts above) because otherwise this could go down a slippery slope. “Hey, why is Luke Skywalker speaking English? Isn’t it a LONG time ago? Plot hole!!”

  11. Yes, you have to make a mental allowance, otherwise the movie isn’t possible. In the book, Taylor (Heston) learns the ape’s language, but that would have slowed down the film.

    Well, it would be possible. If it was possible in the book, it’s possible in the movie. All you’d really need is a Dances with Wolves-style montage that shows him learning the language.

    I think Joe’s Star Wars example is more apt. Having apes speak English isn’t any different from having inhabitants of any foreign country speaking English in American films. It’s done for business reasons, and it’s commonly accepted, and not a “plot hole” in the sense that the term is typically used. No one wanted a PotA movie that was subtitled, so they spoke English, and that’s pretty much the end of the story. No different than Schindler’s List.

  12. I think Slim is joking here (3 posts above) because otherwise this could go down a slippery slope. “Hey, why is Luke Skywalker speaking English? Isn’t it a LONG time ago? Plot hole!!”

    Yeah and it wasn’t even a good dubbing of Galactic Basic.

    Don’t even get me started on what they did to Yoda.

  13. It is different from Schindler’s List, or any other sci-fi film that has inhabitants of other planet speaking perfect English (at least Star Trek had the universal translator) because the whole key to Planet of the Apes is the twist at the end (sorry for the spoiler) in which he discovers he’s on Earth, and not some far-flung planet in another galaxy. His first clue should have been that the apes were speaking English. How can you guys not get this?

  14. His first clue should have been that the apes were speaking English. How can you guys not get this?

    Because it’s more far-fetched to think anyone will speak recognizable English in the year 3978 than it is to believe that English, having survived our own species, is spoken only on Earth.

    Hence, it makes more sense to chalk it up to movie convention than an actual component of the plot.

  15. Joe, it’s not the same thing, and I’m not joking. Read my post just above yours.

    I apologize for misunderstanding but I’m kind of with Brian on this one.
    If space/time travel is possible, there is the possibility that other planets have been visited and/or colonized by English-speaking lifeforms. Heston clearly thought he was on another planet (and therefore so does the audience) and is not shocked by the language but that they speak at all. It may be arrogant American imperialism at work but English appears to be assumed in his galaxy.

    I’m sure if they would have responded with intelligent but unintelligible whoops and grunts he would have spoken louder and more slowly enunciated – “I said, ‘D I R T Y A P E S…”

  16. If you like a movie, you ignore the small problems. If you don’t like or have something against a movie – you use the problems to rips it to shreds. I do it ALL the time.

    Science fiction is rarely airtight, so, since ROTPOTA was a good movie, I let stuff like the drug working instantly slide. The other way to do it was throwing in a quick montage showing the passing of time every time a person/ape was dosed – and that would have sucked. As to the original film – I’m not sure if the learning the language montage device had even been invented yet. I let the speaking English thing slide too.

  17. Never seemed like something I needed to go out of my way to see – I always thought of it as some cheesy old thing like Earthquake or The Ten Commandments or Soylent Green or something. If it’s actually good, then, well, that’s my bad.

  18. John McTiernan did it best in the Hunt For Red October when Sean Connery and the other captain are talking about their orders and the camera zooms in to his mouth as he’s speaking Russian and then his words turn to English. Brilliant.

  19. There was some movie, I don’t remember what it was, but the guys were speaking French (or whatever). Then one of them arbitrarily said, “Now we speak English.” And they did.

    That was not so brilliant.

  20. Saw this during the week and agree with virtually all of the points that filmman made, although I liked it even less than he did.

    While professionally done (of sorts) I found this film to be largely a bore. This was partly because of the nonsensical narrative events that occur regularly throughout; the biggest howler was the scene of how the CEO completely changes his opinion based on some untested claims from Franco’s character whom he had no previous faith in.

    But the biggest problem that the film had was – as filmman mentioned – all the underlying ideology that made the original such a fascinating one are totally absent here. That’s why for all the technical wizardry on display I was largely tuning out by the 2nd half.

    Couldn’t get over for a supposed brilliant man how many stupid decisions Franco’s character made. At least that distracted attention from how dull his romantic relationship was.

    I can’t see this being beaten for my most overrated of 2011.

    Rating: C-

  21. As for the response it has been getting, it reminds me of the Abrams Star Trek film from a couple of years ago.

    Famous sci-fi series noted for its ideology is ‘rebooted’ with its ideas that made it revered largely gone and replaced by fancy special effects. Cue mass critical praise. How depressing! At least the Abrams movie was a tolerable time-waster, this didn’t even manage that.

  22. If you’re talking about Inglorious Basterds, that was handled very well, I thought.

    No, that wasn’t it. That was a clever way to poke fun at exactly the sort of thing I’m talking about.

  23. McTiernan did it brilliantly in The Hunt for Red October and The 13th Warrior, but I don’t believe it had been done before then, so I can forgive Planet of the Apes.

    As for the negativity towards Rise, I don’t quite understand it, myself – even with the long-winded explanations ;)

  24. At least the Abrams movie was a tolerable time-waster, this didn’t even manage that.

    Completely agree.

    AND: was just listening to the director’s commentary on The Hunt For Red October and McTiernan just said he stole the zoom into the mouth to change the language from Judgment at Nuremberg. Pretty excellent piece of trivia.

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