Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) – Review

Despite the overly wordy title, ROTPOTA delivers the goods when it comes to excitement levels. Commendable popcorn entertainment – 7/10

Dir. Rupert Wyatt

“Stupid monkey! He’ll learn who’s boss soon enough”, proclaims Dodge (Tom Felton) – the cruel guard at a primate holding centre. But as we know from the 6 previous Planet of the Apes films 1) that monkey isn’t stupid 2) that monkey will show the humans who’s boss and 3) that monkey is an ape not a monkey, hence the name.

When I heard that this film was coming out I thought, “Oh no! Not another back-story/gritty reboot/prequel movie.” It’s not that they’re all bad – I enjoyed Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Star Trek and to some extent X-Men: First Class – it’s just to keep things fresh it’d be nice to see a few more originals. Having said this, there is undoubtedly artistic scope for a POTA back-story.

James Franco leads this one as Will Rodman, a scientist trying to defeat Alzheimer’s through the development of a genetically engineered retrovirus which he tests on chimpanzees. One such chimp, named Bright Eyes, is displaying increased cognitive function when she escapes and is shot. Subsequently – and relatively inexplicably – all funding from the programme is cut, leaving Rodman in despair at seeing his research wasted. All the chimps are put down except one – Bright Eyes’ newborn son. Against his initial intuitions Rodman takes the baby chimp home and keeps him in order to continue his research. Naming him Caesar (Andy Serkis), he and his father, Charles (John Lithgow) incorporate the chimp into the family, leading to troubles further down the line. Rodman conducts his clandestine research, despite the risks, in order to rid his father of dementia and eventually the hard work pays off as he produces a drug which returns his father to his former self. Meanwhile, Caesar’s intelligence increases exponentially, as do his levels of aggression and strength.

When Caesar attacks a neighbor in defence of Charles, Will is forced to put him in a primate facility run by the unsympathetic Landon (Brian Cox). Here Caesar becomes brutalised because of the way both the humans and other apes treat him. Matters then escalate and the pace of the movie quickens: Will develops a stronger drug as Charles’ mental state declines once again; whilst Caesar enacts a plan to firstly become leader of the apes in the facility and then break out and escape to Muir Woods over-looking San Francisco. From there, we assume he will plan his revolution in earnest.

There was much to enjoy in this film. Firstly, the CGI is fantastic; aside from one scene when Caesar is young, the apes look incredibly lifelike. Like Lord of the Rings, District 9 and Avatar before it, ROTPOTA has capitalised upon the ever-improving special effects technology and increased the extent to which audiences can emotionally engage with extraordinary events and characters. The lifelike and human qualities of the apes – which are accentuated by their increased intelligence – enable us to not only empathise, but actually side with the apes in their battle for liberty. Of course, we are recruited to the ape cause because of a number of additional factors: the evilness of the pharmaceutical company, Gen Sys, for whom Rodman reluctantly works; the gruff negligence of Landon and viciousness of his son Dodge; and to a lesser extent the anger and ignorance of Rodman’s neighbour, Hunsiker (David Hewlett).

Secondly, like in Lord of the Rings when he played Gollum, Andy Serkis steals the show as Caesar. Whether we wish to call it performance-capture or just plain old acting (Serkis has announced there is no difference), Serkis handles this difficult role with such physical brilliance. Caesar’s relationship with Rodman is believable and his transition from youngster to full-grown chimp to revolutionary leader is well measured. My only criticism is that his final words (yes words!) are cheesy and unnecessary.

Lastly, despite his limited experience of film-making at this scale, Rupert Wyatt delivers on the action scenes. San Francisco provides a stunning backdrop with the final showdown making full use of the Golden Gate Bridge. The apes move over San Francisco Bay by swinging under the bridge, by climbing into the mist or by powering through the middle – sometimes on horseback to reference the original. What this amounts to is an exciting and imaginative final sequence through which Wyatt has ensured he will receive future work in the blockbuster arena.

What has been neglected, however, is both the screenplay and the development of the human characters in this film. It lacks the wit, satire and intelligence of its predecessors and Franco plays Rodman with a remarkable lifelessness. The relationship between Rodman and his boss Steve Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is oddly placid – there should be sparks flying in these scenes but the nervous and frustrated energy that we should encounter is absent. In addition, the opportunity to fully engage with the ethical debate surrounding Rodman’s research is sidestepped as Caroline (Freida Pinto) doesn’t question the reason for Caesar’s intelligence for several years, despite being a primatologist.

If we focus on the apes then this film is excellent; however, when we look at the whole then some rather obvious flaws emerge. Basically, the apes are great and the humans aren’t so. Then again, I suppose that is why this becomes their planet. Whoops! Sorry if you haven’t seen the original 1968 film, I have just ruined one of the best endings in movie history. But never mind, the ending scene of ROTPOTA alludes to a possible sequel, so there’s always that to look forward to.

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