Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for Intense and Frightening Sequences of Action and Violence
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Written by: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver
Starring: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo & Tyler Labine
A prequel to 1968’s PLANET OF THE APES sounded like a big gamble, but Fox wisely poured money into this project. Thanks to passionate writing from screenwriter team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, alongside steady direction from Rupert Wyatt, masterful motion-capture work from Andy Serkis, and an all-around great story, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has gone down as one of the best prequels to ever hit the big screen. This origin story of the primate uprising hits strong emotional notes, playing out like a prison drama combined with a tale of self-discovery…all with intelligent monkeys. If you haven’t seen RISE yet, you’re missing out on one of the best opening chapters of a series in the 21st century!
Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a potential cure for Alzheimer’s disease and his lab tests have moved onto monkeys. When his star test subject is gunned down whilst protecting her baby, Will takes the ape to his house to raise it and possibly give his Alzheimer’s-afflicted father Charles (John Lithgow) a pet. However, the ape Caesar (Andy Serkis) proves to be far smarter than Will anticipated and functions with beyond-human intelligence. Soon enough, Caesar is questioning his place in the world and his tragic quest of self-discovery reaches a breaking point when he’s sent to an abusive primate shelter. Humans had their chance on this planet and now, it’s time for super smart apes to rise!
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has three distinct acts. The first has the relationship between Will and Caesar. The second has Caesar’s captivity at the primate shelter, which plays out like a mostly dialogue-free prison drama. The third (and final) act brings us the uprising/revolution that was frequently shown-off in the film’s marketing. The film isn’t exactly unpredictable, because we already know where everything will end up…as a planet of intelligent apes awaits us in the future. However, the emotional depth of the ape characters and an action-packed primate vs. human revolution make this entire film well worth a watch.
Andy Serkis dominates the screen as Caesar. The special effects on this ape protagonist are amazing to behold, but they are heightened by Serkis’s expressive performance that was brought to life through tiny dots on his face. This technology was used for Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and the titular giant gorilla in KING KONG. These effects and the unique style of acting has reached its highest point yet with the APE prequel trilogy. Serkis more than deserves an Academy Award nod…though the Oscars will seemingly never acknowledge the art of motion capture performances. Caesar is a fleshed-out protagonist who’s given a deep story arc (discovering his monkey place in a human world) and we understand his motivations, even though they will lead to humanity’s eventual downfall. Serkis’s powerful performance doesn’t have a single spoken word for two-thirds of the film. When he does eventually speak, it’s simple and powerful.
As far as human characters go, John Lithgow elicits some real sadness as the Alzheimer-stricken father and gives his best performance since his stint as DEXTER’s Trinity Killer. David Oyelowo does a damn fine job as the film’s central human antagonist, even if his villain is a bit thin. Meanwhile, Brian Cox and Tom Felton will make you hate them as the abusive staff of the ape shelter. RISE’s only lackluster performances come from James Franco and Freida Pinto as a human couple that are given an ample amount of screen time for the first third as they bond with Caesar and then carelessly thrown to the side as afterthoughts for the rest of the film. Franco’s Will occasionally shows up to make a sad face at Caesar’s captivity and Freida just sort of timidly stands in the background.
RISE’s rousing final third has excellently crafted set pieces as apes use improvised weapons, their climbing skills, and their natural strength against loads of people (mostly humans trying to capture or kill them). I never thought I’d be so happy to watch animals ferociously take humans down…until I saw RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The emotion injected into Caesar and the natural progression of his prison-like revolution make the adrenaline-pumping action so much more satisfying and powerful than if this were simply a B-movie level approach of nature vs. man. Be sure to watch the mid-credits scene to get a brilliant plot development in this series too. Though not every element of its script works (mainly Franco and Pinto’s characters), RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is one of the best reboots and prequels of the 21st century!