REVIEW: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a movie with an unexpected hero: Caesar the chimpanzee. I went into the film expecting James Franco’s character to be the lead role, and watch as he dealt with the consequences of testing a brain-repairing wonder drug on chimps. Yet, I left the theatre surprised – Caesar is the story’s actual focus, as it shows how he grows up in a human home and eventually leads an army of captive apes toward freedom in a Northern California forest.

As a result, director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have crafted a refreshing and clever science fiction film – a solid first entry in a proposed trilogy.

The film is built on a real-life scientific issue: the testing of drugs on apes, before the compounds move into human trials. The practice has been a concern of animal-rights activists for years, but the film tries to clean it up a bit by staging the tests in a state-of-the-art company lab made of glass and steel. There, scientist Will Rodman (Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, a drug he calls ALZ-112. Before Will finds Caesar, the animal testing is a necessary evil for Will, but when a chimp test subject named Bright Eyes breaks into an investor meeting and is shot by security, Will adopts her child to avoid euthanizing it.

The child is named “Caesar” by Will’s father, who lives with Will and happens to suffer from Alzheimer’s. Will discovers that the effects of the drug were passed on to Caesar by his mother when she was pregnant, and through a series of scenes we watch Caesar grow up, showing remarkable mental abilities derived from the accidental exposure to the wonder drug. Eventually, Caesar matures into a full-grown chimp, and he becomes difficult for Will to control. Caesar is sent to an animal control facility run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton).

Caesar is initially mistreated by both the resident apes and the control officers, but his increased intelligence allows Caesar to become the apes’ leader. Caesar then plans to escape the facility with his followers, to seek a better life in the wild.

Because the film focuses so heavily on the ape characters, the convincing use of special effects is an essential component of the visuals. In the original Apes movies, the ape characters were created with heavy prosthetics, which now show their age in comparison with these CG apes designed by New Zealand’s Weta Digital. Every detail, from the emotion-filled eyes to the individual hairs, looks real. When Will is forced to leave Caesar at the control facility, his screams of frustration and anguished expressions connect in the same way a similar performance from a human actor would.

Technical wizardry aside, the life behind Caesar is due mostly to motion capture actor Andy Serkis, known for his performances as Gollum in the The Lord of the Rings and as the titular giant ape in King Kong. Fortunately, we don’t get a rehash of those characters here; instead, Caesar’s intelligence and the subtleties of his character come through in his face and body language.

In fact, the “performances” of the apes in Rise are so good that the acting of their human counterparts is sometimes noticeably lacking. James Franco seems a bit washed out through much of the film, and Freida Pinto, who plays Franco’s love interest, is often relegated to gazing meaningfully at the action. Part of this has to do with the writing for the human characters, which usually consists of sweeping statements like “Some things were just not meant to be controlled”, and “You do the science, I make the money”. It doesn’t ruin the film, but stronger human characters might have made for a powerful ensemble cast.

My only other quibble with the film was the climactic escape by the apes through the streets of San Francisco. Some sequences, like the apes using pieces of a wrought-iron fence as spears, made sense. But there were a lot of shots of the animals bursting through tempered glass windows, which – while it is an action movie trope – stretches the believability a bit, considering the apes aren’t wearing any protective clothes. After all, they’re supposed to be super-smart, not super-powered.

It’s intriguing that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be released in a year that has seen a number of chimp-related stories, both onscreen and off. Recently, a documentary titled Project Nim chronicled the life of a female chimpanzee named Nim, who was raised in a human home for a research project, and who ended up in a sub-par control facility not unlike the one Caesar is placed in. Then there was the promising update on the woman who was attacked by a pet chimp last year, suffering terrible wounds to her face and eyes. She received a successful face transplant several days ago, and serves, along with movies like Rise, as a welcome reminder of the oft-downplayed power of these animals.

It’s clear that Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a pair of goals. Its primary objective is to reboot the forty-year old Apes franchise, introducing us to the characters and scenario, and become the jumping-off point for a trilogy of films. Its other goal is to make Caesar a believable leader for his troop of apes, not simply a monster-movie sideshow. I think the film succeeds on both counts, and is only dragged down at points by some less-than-convincing human acting.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets three stars out of four for its plausible sci-fi premise, its measured use of computer animation, and the impressive work of Andy Serkis.


Have you seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Do you plan to? If you’re familiar with the original series of movies, how do you think this entry stacks up, and where would you rank the last remake, 2001’s Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton? Post your thoughts in the comments down below!

Check out some of my recent reviews:

The Graduate (Classic Movies Series)

Eco-Pirate: The Story of Paul Watson