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Theatrical Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

August 18, 2011
  • Dir. Rupert Wyatt
  • Released by 20th Century Fox
  • Inspired by the Pierre Boulle novel La Planète des singes
  • Rating: ***

The 1963 French science fiction novel that inspired the Planet of the Apes franchise was very much a satire of human society, as was the series of five films that spawned from it during the late 1960s and early 1970s. The first film, from 1968, actually enhanced the social commentary and created a far darker look at religious authoritarianism and the Cold War nuclear threat than Pierre Boulle ever attempted in his book. The sequels embraced their own pet causes, with the fourth entry, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) using the primates as an allegory for the Civil Rights Era race riots.

The newest film, Rise, most directly remakes Conquest (while removing the time travel element introduced in the third Apes and incorporating ideas from the first movie), while simultaneously serving as a complete reworking of the mythology. Unfortunately, this reboot has very little to say, choosing instead to act as pure science fiction rather than allegory. Its hard science fiction approach makes it unrecognizable as an incarnation of the Boulle novel, since both the satire and the otherworldly setting are dropped for a straightforward tale set on present day Earth.

The themes introduced in the films also remain absent from the new Apes, which seems satisfied to act as a science gone awry story with a dash of vague humane/humanistic thought thrown in with little definition. However, it still seems far better conceived than the 2001 Tim Burton remake, which not only had nothing to say, but also lacked a compelling story. Rise retells the story of the super-intelligent chimpanzee Caesar (originally played by Roddy McDowall, now played by Andy Serkis) with sufficient heart and entertainment value to make for a perfectly agreeable summer blockbuster, if not a particularly smart piece of sci-fi.

The smart apes rise this time not from post-apocalyptic evolution or temporal paradoxes, but rather from attempts to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The head scientist on the project (James Franco) has a personal investment in the goal, since his father (John Lithgow, easily the most compelling of the human characters) suffers from the disease. Unfortunate circumstances lead the scientist to take in the newborn child of one of the laboratory’s chimpanzees, which he raises in his own home. A love interest (Freida Pinto) appears, but she serves about as great a purpose to the plot as Talia Shire did to Rocky IV.

Also on hand is the greedy corporate type (David Oyelowo) who wants to exploit his employee’s findings, thus assuring that more smart chimps appear for the film’s climax. He is also a contributor to the more advanced form of the cure (since the initial formula used on Caesar and Lithgow proves to be only temporary), which inevitably turns into a virus that threatens to wipe out humanity (promising to stand in for the nuclear bomb in this post-Cold War era). The new strain also seems to give Caesar the ability to talk, a development that only passes audience scrutiny because of the source material.

A disastrous encounter with a neighbor (Rodney McKay…er, David Hewlett) requires Caesar to be placed in a holding facility under Brian Cox (who might as well be playing Stryker from X-Men 2), where the chimp goes through almost a scene-for-scene reenactment of Charlton Heston’s imprisonment scenes from the 1968 film. Eventually, he organizes his fellow apes into a resistance force that seeks refuge outside of the realm of homo sapiens. All of these scenes, especially the climactic rise of the apes, work best as exemplary displays of motion capture effects from Weta Digital, as they tend to push the silliness level to a level that was far easier to accept in the more metaphorical previous entries.

Entertainment value saves what would otherwise be a rather worthless film, although the intended audience for this movie seems to be a tad vague. Long-time fans will appreciate the endless collection of in-jokes (if they do not tire of them first), but they will be disappointed at the lack of thematic depth. New audiences will not have such expectations, but they also may not be as willing to embrace some of the franchise’s wackier conceits (although the move from humans in makeup to computer-generated apes might lessen the skepticism a tad). Ultimately, both groups should find the movie enough of a hoot for at least one viewing, but even new converts will probably find at least the 1968 original to be more substantive and satisfying.

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From → Film Criticism

2 Comments
  1. Nice review. I was very pleasantly surprised by this movie, especially given how disappointing nearly all of the big blockbusters have been this summer.

    The apes (especially Serkis) completely upstage the human actors. I’m also starting to think Freida Pinto is just a pretty face (she hasn’t proven anything acting-wise so far after all). Hopefully, Serkis will be rewarded for his outstanding performance.

    • I can only hope that the “reward” Serkis receives is not a remake of Battle for the Planet of the Apes. 😉

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