While many people will want to debate the merits of whether the “Planet of the Apes” franchise needs to be relaunched, rebooted, or re-envisioned, the fact of the matter is that, for better or worse, the series is back. With its origins dating back to 1963 and Pierre Boulle’s novel, the “Planet Of The Apes” franchise has a dedicated and loyal following nearly 50 years after the novel’s first publication. The classic and iconic first “Planet Of The Apes” film from 1968 starred Charlton Heston and became such a cultural phenomenon that four sequels followed in a 5-year span.
In 1974, the franchise had an ill-fated run as an episodic television show and in 1975, “Planet Of The Apes” became a briefly aired Saturday-morning cartoon. By that time, the Apes had simply run their course. Then, with the advent of home video and cable movie channels, the franchise found new life and has remained embedded in pop culture ever since. While a widely panned 2001 reboot from director Tim Burton missed its intended target, in a cinematic landscape populated by relaunches, reboots, and reinventions, it was simply a matter of time before 20th Century Fox took another run at introducing the “Apes” franchise in a new and exciting way.
And so here we are. Possessing the latest in cutting edge visual effects, all new characters, and a familiar but refreshed mythology, this “Planet of the Apes” is a flawed, but nonetheless thoroughly entertaining movie experience.
James Franco takes the lead this time as Will Rodman, a molecular scientist working for Gen-Sys, who has been tirelessly working on developing a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease, dubbed ALZ-112. Will’s work has been tested on a dozen apes and in one test patient, a female dubbed “Bright Eyes”, the results have been nothing short of extraordinary. At a board meeting of Gen-Sys investors, Will presents his findings and makes the push to have AZ-112 implemented in human trials as a restorative agent in repairing and rebuilding brain tissue. Unbeknownst to Will, his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), and those in the board room, something has gone terribly wrong and “Bright Eyes” has broken free of her surroundings. Running roughshod through Gen-Sys headquarters, the ape is gunned down and all of Gen-Sys’ work has seemingly been a tremendously expensive and embarrassing failure. Jacobs orders the program terminated immediately, and the ape test subjects put down as well.
A discovery changes everything when research assistant, Franklin (Tyler Labine), shows Will that what triggered the ape’s frenzied attack was not ALZ-112, but the fact that she was a mother and feared for her newborn chimpanzee. Unable to euthanize the infant, Will decides to take the baby home for a couple of days until things are sorted out at Gen-Sys.
The next morning brings a revelation as Will awakens to find that at a day or so old, the ape exhibits remarkable intelligence and aptitude. Naming him Caesar (Andy Serkis), Will keeps Caesar and raises him in his home. Quickly Will learns that the infant chimpanzee has inherited the heightened sensory abilities exhibited from his mother’s taking of the ALZ-112 serum. Will names the baby, Caesar, and proceeds to raise him in his house. As Caesar grows older through the ensuing years, he is integrated into Will’s daily life, and those in and around Will’s life. Other than a growing sense of wanting to be outside and see the world, Caesar is mostly content with his life. Mostly.
Much of the talk surrounding “Rise..” will focus on the visual effects implemented by WETA Digital, the FX studio co-founded by Oscar winning director, Peter Jackson, and themselves recipients of five Academy Awards for their work on Jackson’s “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy, his 2006 remake of “King Kong”, and James Cameron’s 2009 epic “Avatar”. For Jackson’s films, WETA Digital has utilized Andy Serkis for Motion-Capture work as Gollum in the “Lord Of The Rings” trilogy and the Mighty Kong. Serkis has always received great acclaim for his work in these roles of the past, but in this return as Caesar, Serkis gives an incredible performance.
While some of the action sequences involving the CGI and Motion-Captured simians is not exactly perfect, falling victim to herky-jerky character movement and an annoying drag-of-the-mouse style look aiding some of these apes along their adventure, the visuals surrounding Serkis’ work as Caesar are nothing short of astonishing. Andy Serkis is extraordinary here, putting down on film the most rewarding and well-rounded Motion-Capture performance to date. Caesar never looks or feels false or fake, never appears created by a computer, and is as real a character in this film as the human beings on screen. Remember this come Oscar time for sure.
“Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is, from bell to bell, quite the whirlwind of a film, despite its notable struggles. James Franco plays Will Rodman quite reserved and never gets to a realistically emotional place with the role. He is such a fine actor that he never distracts from the story being told, but often when the film focuses on the human conflict and narrative, everything lags. When Will falls in love with Frieda Pinto’s terribly underwritten and frankly unnecessary Caroline, the film’s knees buckle and start to shake. However, when we see Will, Caroline, and Caesar together, living, adapting, and growing with one another, “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is compelling and at times, quite moving.
“Rise…” also bloats a bit, implementing a few too many subplots and some alarming gaps in basic logic. James Franco’s father, Charles (John Lithgow), is the driving force behind Will’s highly personal obsession with ALZ-112 and compels Will to obsessively develop what turns out to possibly be a dual-purpose vaccine. The aforementioned love story is inert, with Frieda Pinto’s role feeling like much of it was relegated to the cutting room floor. The politics surrounding Gen-Sys and their profit-first ideology is obvious and forced, making Will’s boss, Jacobs, little more than a stock caricature we have seen countless times before. Stepping out of the shadows from a decade of playing Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” franchise, Tom Felton is an acceptable villain as an abuser of the apes while they are housed in an unsavory animal shelter run by his father (Brian Cox). Ultimately, the human storylines are relatively subpar, but the screenplay is able to get us across the finish line because the characterizations and the motivations of Caesar and eventually, the other apes, are so well written.
Some clever and not-so-clever nods and winks to the original series are tossed in to please the purists, but the one thing that “Rise…” desperately tries to convey to its viewers is that this is entirely new mythology. Director Rupert Wyatt has shot the film in a completely and wholly original way and 20th Century Fox is clear on rebranding this franchise. By exhibiting the ability to add realism to the simian characters that was flat out impossible and implausible in previous incarnations, they are on the right track. Let’s just tighten up that screenplay a bit for the next go-around, shall we?
ONE MORE NOTE:
Don’t rush out of the theater when the credits start to roll. Not only is there an important scene which you’ll want to see, but it is important for you to actually watch the credits. You’ll understand…believe me.