Sitting on an overly generous 80% on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomato-Meter, The Rise of the Planet of the Apes has begun. Was this a successful reboot or full system crash? Let's find out....
Prologue: I enjoy James Franco, grew up watching John Lithgow and respect the unsung talents of Andy Serkis. I am also a fan of the only FX company I know outside of Industrial Light and Magic; WETA DIGITAL. However, I was not excited nor impressed when the Ape news hit the net about the upcoming film. Needlessly redundant title aside, I felt that the premise of the Planet of the Apes was limited and had ran it's course.
Being a fan of movies-that-are-popular-to-hate, I enjoyed the last Ape outing with Tim Burton's contribution to the franchise starring Marky Mark Walberg. The film was an advanced version of the classic series; Talking Apes enslaving humans. So, you can understand my confusion that "hardcore" POTA fans hated that version but were sending early praises to an installment that looked NOTHING like the classic series. Christopher Nolan has inadvertently succeeded in making Hollywood not only strip down CBMs to gritty "realisim", but now, non CBM properties. This is; The Planet of the Apes Begins. Weather this approach is good or bad depends entirely on the property being Nolanized. Let's see how it went.
The movie is not a summer blockbuster movie, but more of an off-season sci-fi thriller that you'd find around October and November. What keeps the film from sinking to below average levels is the detail put into the emotional narrative- because, as we know, the viewer must care about the characters and their journey to get the best experience from the story.
The film begins with Franco's scientific character pushing a brain cure, which we find the motivation to be his sick Father. Under the command of a money hungry boss, Will has been testing the cure on Monkeys'. They believe they have reached a breakthrough when a female Chimp makes a breakthrough (the window) into the meeting where Will is pitching the cure to the board. The monkey is shot dead right in the middle of the meeting, leaving every potential investor disinterested in the failed formula. This leads to the ordered termination of all infected Monkeys'. This is when Will finds the baby Chimp who he and his Father would come to call Caesar.
As talented as the WETA DIGITAL team are, it takes a while to get used to the CGI Caesar amongst his live-action cast mates. Some times his face is unbelievably real, other times; he appears to be standard CGI in all it's rubbery splendor. Once your eyes accepts all the Apes as CGI creatures, you can focus on the story. The Orangutan proves to be the most impressive and consistent rendering of all the Apes. Caesars proportions and anatomy as a Chimp seems a little off. He's rather large and tall for a Chimp. But Serkis does his thing and solidifies the CGI model as a functioning member of the cast.
As I said before, this film survives with it's emotional content. It is a bit of a downer film with only a few exciting scenes, the finale being the primary action piece. But early on, I found myself more concerned with the subplot of Will's sick Father than the Ape story. John Lithgow's character is so pitiful that you're relieved that he's only acting and really doesn't have movie Alzheimer's. Lithgow is an incredible actor and he's going full retard. It's uplifting when Will desperately uses the cure on his ailing Father with positive results. It is an emotional moment to see Lithgow's character experiencing a clear and enhanced mind after being left confused for so long. But this is short lived as the cure turns on Will's Father, sending him spiraling back to an even more confused state of mind. This sets up the departure of Caesar from his family after a confused Mr Rodman damages his neighbors car.
When Caesar is finally sent away after attacking the neighbor, this begins the Ape aspect of the film in full- Yet things are accompanied by a subplot of a growing disease among humans. Unfortunately, this subplot moves into a bigger storyline that is only there as a vehicle for a sequel.
The pacing and structure of the film is acceptable if not a bit by-the-numbers when it comes to some of it's cut-out characters. Malfoy and Stryker are of course cast as villains and behave predictably as the Father and Son care takers of some sort of dog pound for Apes. Tom Felton recites Charlton Heston's famous "It's a Mad House!" and "Damn dirty Ape" lines, both times coming off a bit forced. There are some amusing scenes during this period of the film, although it lingers one step too many before moving onto different territory, which is basically the end scene of the film.
Watching Caesars evolution into a leader is fun. He arrives at the compound as the new Chimp on the block and even gets a beat down greeting. It's set up as if he is a new inmate in a prison and the playroom is the prison yard. But this is what we all came here for: The Apes Rampage. Once leadership is established through exposing his Ape friends to the mind enhancing cure, Caesar is granted a loyal army of Apes. So, they take to the empty streets of San Fransisco where there is literally a hand full of people running down the street. This unpopulated feel of the city is a big misstep and gives the film a really cheap feel. The Apes appear to be terrorizing the desolate streets of I AM LEGEND or perhaps Racoon City. Frisco is NEVER that dead, but apparently, everyone's on the Golden Gate bridge... all 20 cars. If you piece together what you've seen in the trailers and the online clips, you've seen the finale save for a brief scene where Caesar tends to a dying Gorilla who was fiercely loyal to the Chimp commander.
The film is completely sequel driven once Caesar's origin story is established. It plays out exactly like a first time CBM character. His story is told to a steady pace to touch on a few things, then the money sequence is added to show him in action. Then it ends. But there is decent character development when it came to Franco, Oyelowo and Lithgow. Oyelowo's Jacob is well constructed and the character arches from his entrance to his plunge into the icy Bay. He does no physical dirt, yet comes off more villainous than Cox and Felton who were placed directly in evil positions.
The love interest, who seems too beautiful even for the charming Franco, enters the story and takes her place at lightening speed. Will takes the young Caesar to the vet, and the Chimp likes the vet so much that he does a little match making via sign language and gets Will a date- a date that launches into a relationship and the caption that tells you it's been several years later. It happens so fast, I don't even remember if there was a montage. But in some way, it works. They seem like they knew each other at least as long time friends if the love connection wasn't really there.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not A MUST-SEE, but you shouldn't be bored if you see it. I don't see any re-watch value to it as it is a film that once you see what happens, there isn't enough great moments to bring you back. Some of the amusing aspects of the film ware out after you've experienced them. A big question I had for this film was, will they speak? It's not POTA unless the Apes are talking. The theater was in awe when Caesar let out a full English NO! during a climactic fight with Landon. The conclusion to this fight is more epic than the bridge finale- most likely due to it's personal nature as to where the bridge sequence is a free for all of mayhem. But the second and last time Caesar speaks, it is a bit more complex (three words instead of one) but doesn't quite have the impact as his first words. That's pretty much how the films more dynamic elements play out. You see it once, and it's cool; you see it again and you're looking for something new. There is a particularly long swinging sequence of Caesar swinging around the house that basically dulls similar scenes to come.
With a bit of emotion and decent character development; Rise of the Planet of the Apes just skims by being on the same production level as Species, Splice and the first Resident Evil. I reference those films because Rise does have a generic sci-fi overtone similar to films like those. WETA and a few good actors made it watchable. Most importantly, they pulled off the CGI Caesar as an actual character. No new ground broken, no new story told, and a missed opportunity in scope, I still enjoyed the film for what it was. I would definitely be interested in seeing where this is going.