DVD Review: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Lacks Vision

Rise of the Planet of the Apes poster

DVD Review:  RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)

by

Michael Arruda

Will I finally get a rise out of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)?

Unlike a lot of other people, I wasn’t too thrilled with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES when it opened in theaters a couple of years ago.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is the reboot/reimagining of the classic PLANET OF THE APES series begun with the iconic film from 1968 starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall, a film so popular it led to four sequels and two short-lived television series, one of them animated.  During the early 1970s, PLANET OF THE APES was all the rage, as popular as STAR WARS would later become, and I remember as a kid absolutely loving it.  I was caught up in APES mania.  Of course, the whole thing was based on a novel, Planet of the Apes (1963), by Pierre Boulle, and I’d have to say that this is a case where the 1968 film was actually better than the book on which it was based.

Two summers ago, I was really looking forward to seeing RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the first APES film since Tim Burton’s dreadful remake in 2001.  Word of mouth in 2011 was very good, and so I went into the theater with high expectations.  Sadly, when all was said and done, I wasn’t that wowed by it.  I found it all rather average, and its best scenes were given away in the film’s trailers.

So, two years later, I figured it was time to watch it again, to see if my opinion had changed, which is why I caught up with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES on DVD recently.

The verdict, after seeing it again?  Truthfully, I liked it even less this time around!

The basic problem I have with RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and the main reason I don’t like it as much as the films in the original series, is it lacks imagination.  The original series had at its core a story about apes evolving in Earth’s future and eventually taking over the planet once humankind had destroyed itself.  These apes were played by actors in make-up by John Chambers, who won an Oscar for his efforts, and there was a sense of awe about these creatures that was frightening.  The apes from the original series were scary.  Charlton Heston in the first movie didn’t shriek, “It’s a madhouse!” for nothing.

In RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the mood and environment is just a little too sterile for my tastes.  Everything is just a bit too neat and tidy.  It’s not scary, never did I feel all that uncomfortable, and it’s certainly not that imaginative.

RISE is sort of a reboot of the fourth film in the series, CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972) which tells the story of how Caesar, the son of Cornelius and Zira, two chimps from the future, leads the present day apes in their revolt against humans.

Here, Caesar isn’t from the future.  His special cognitive abilities come from a super drug given to his mother by a scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), in his attempt to create a drug to treat Alzheimers.

This is the main reason this film doesn’t work for me.  Caesar’s story here is just too ordinary.  It lacks imagination, creativity, and vision.  At its core, it’s really a variation of the “man loses pet” plot.  Will allows Caesar to live in his home, they develop a bond, but things go wrong, and Caesar is taken away from Will.  Caesar then uses his super cognitive abilities to lead the apes in his compound to revolt and escape, seeking their freedom.  Blah.

The script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver never gets inside Caesar’s head.  We never really know what’s it like to be Caesar.  Compare this to Roddy McDowall’s performance as Caesar in CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and BATTLE FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (1973) and you’ll find in those movies that Caesar, brought to life by McDowall, is a complicated and ultimately very heroic and likable character.  This Caesar is just a smart monkey.

The true star here is the film’s CGI effects, and Andy Serkis as Caesar does an admirable job with the facial expressions, but it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.  He was just as good as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG (2006) and of course he was even better and had much more personality as Gollum in the Peter Jackson LORD OF THE RINGS movies.

Here, Serkis looks great as Caesar, and at times I felt bad for Caesar, but I was never all that interested in him.

The rest of the cast also disappoints.  James Franco, who was so captivating in OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL (2013) is flat here as scientist Will Rodman.  He doesn’t come close to carrying this movie.  David Oyelowo as bad guy Steven Jacobs and Freida Pinto as love interest Caroline Aranha are both boring, and Brian Cox, almost always fun to watch, is wasted here in a small do nothing role as the guy who operates the ape compound.

The best performance in the movie belongs to John Lithgow as Will’s father Charles, who’s suffering from Alzheimers disease.  It’s a very sympathetic performance, but this film isn’t called RISE OF THE ALZEIMERS PATIENTS, is it?

Director Rupert Wyatt made a movie that looks really good but is seriously lacking in the imagination department.  What exactly is Caesar thinking? What is it like to be Caesar?  What do the other apes think about Caesar?  What’s their reaction when he speaks?  None of these questions are answered with any degree of satisfaction.

The ending is also unrealistic.  In this day and age, there’s no way I believe that a group of apes make it through San Francisco without all being shot dead.  Sorry.   I just don’t buy the grand escape.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is technologically satisfying—it makes great use of its CGI effects— but that’s about it.  On both the intellectual and emotional levels, the film doesn’t cut it.  I wasn’t wowed by its story, its characters, or its plot, and it never really drew me into its world of its very super smart ape.  For that matter, I never really had a feel for just how smart Caesar really was.  As the movie goes on, he seems more angry than smart.

A sequel is scheduled for a 2014 release.  I’m not exactly going ape over the news.

—Michael

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