Film Review: “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”

by Jason LeRoy on August 5, 2011

starring: James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo

written by: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver

directed by: Rupert Wyatt

MPAA: Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language

For a big-budgeted summer franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exceptionally serious, dark, and joyless. It borders on experimental; a significant portion of the film consists almost entirely of CGI apes grunting at each other in captivity. But the film does pull off the neat trick of making its imaginary simians far more complex and compelling than its humans. This is both a testament to the film’s remarkable visual effects, specifically the physical acting of Andy Serkis, as well as a sorry commentary on the pitiably weak human characters.

Will (James Franco) is a genetic engineer working to cure Alzheimer’s so that he can heal his afflicted father, Charles (John Lithgow). The company he works for tests its drugs on questionably-sourced apes; if Will has any idea where the apes come from, he doesn’t let on. When one of the tests goes horribly wrong, Will finds himself smuggling a baby ape out of the lab to save it from being put down. He and his father begin calling him Caesar, and decide to raise him themselves. They are aided in this by Caroline (Freida Pinto), a pretty zoo doctor who begins dating Will after he brings Caesar to her for a consultation.

Years go by, and the four of them – Will, Caroline, Charles, and Caesar – form a content little family. But as Caesar gets older, he begins to chafe at his identity confusion: what is he to them? Is he their pet, or their equal? Caesar was born with one of Will’s test drugs in his system, passed down from his mother. As a result, he is much smarter and more advanced than most apes. It begins to bother him that he is led around on a leash when they are in public. Then, after a violent encounter in which he attempts to protect Charles from an asshole neighbor, Caesar is forced into some kind of ape prison pending an investigation of the incident. The film suddenly turns into a simian version of Oz, and Caesar begins to form his consciousness as a member of an oppressed and exploited group. And from there, he evolves into the leader of an ape uprising.

This is a serious-minded and transparent parable about not just animal rights, but the rights of any oppressed group in need of a leader to stir its collective consciousness. Sadly, it is not especially entertaining. And, like so many films about underground heroes fighting back against their oppressors, the oppressors are not exactly painted with nuance. Even the “good guys” in the film could scarcely be described as characters. As Will, James Franco is more of a distraction than anything else. His ongoing and sustained media overexposure, much of it orchestrated by him, has turned him into Lady Gaga’s nearest male equivalent. And despite his well-documented work in higher education, the sight of him in a lab coat and thoughtfully furrowed brow is just amusing. His thick, coarse voice doesn’t really lend itself to urgent medical pronouncements.

Much worse are the villains, specifically the asshole neighbor, Will’s slick profit-driven boss at the genetics lab (David Oyelowo), and worst of all, a character named Dodge Landon (ha!),  the pointlessly abusive guard at the ape shelter, played by poor Tom Felton. After spending the last decade watching his portrayal of a villain as complicated and iconic as Draco Malfoy, it pains the heart to see him slumming in his first major post-Potter appearance in such a shallow cartoon of a role. He even has a stuttering, timid assistant scurrying around after him. Given the thoughtlessness and general disdain the film has for its human characters, it is perhaps not surprising that PETA has been lavishing praise on it.

With all that said, the film’s technical accomplishments with the apes are pretty amazing. Much has already been said about the physical performance of Andy Serkis (best known for being the movement actor for Gollum in LOTR) as Caesar, and more will continue to be said. It is a marvel, and Caesar’s arc in the film is genuinely powerful and moving. I was taken entirely by surprise when I found myself actually caring about him. This is perhaps the most attached and invested I’ve ever been in a CG character in a non-animated film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an earnestly well-intended allegory about how revolutions are born, but sadly, it’s about as fun and entertaining as a civics lesson. It is dry, light on action, and humorless (other than a few tongue-in-cheek references to the original Planet of the Apes film). It slowly builds its way to the Golden Gate Bridge climax you’ve seen in every trailer, which means you’ve already seen by far its most exciting sequence. Those looking for a wild summer ride would be advised to look elsewhere. But if you’re looking for a new film to screen in your freshman sociology class, I think you’ve found it.

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