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

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Premise: Set in the near future, a scientist (James Franco) experiments on chimpanzees in pursuit of a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. He develops a drug that increases the apes’ intelligence and when the chimps become aware of their lot, they rebel against their captors.

What Works: Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a prequel to either the 1968 original Apes film or the 2001 remake. This film is really a retooling of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, with influences from Frankenstein and Project X. Although this film is not about the specific racial and class themes of the original Apes pictures, it does adapt the series for contemporary audiences, picking up on the basic question of what it means to be civilized and depicts a scenario in which the feral and the domestic collide. Rise milks the allegorical power of the Planet of the Apes premise and the film’s depiction of the apes’ emerging community dramatizes and even embraces the emergence of a revolutionary consciousness. To do this, the film smartly structures its story with dual protagonists: the scientist played by James Franco and the chimpanzee played by Andy Serkis. Rise of the Planet of the Apes pivots its perspective very skillfully, starting from the point of view of James Franco’s character, establishing the scientist’s motivation and giving the audience an empathetic entry point into the film. But as Rise goes on, its perspective gradually shifts to Caesar and his companions. And it is in the ape storyline that Rise really takes off. As a purely cinematic experience, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an exciting example of the power of film. Like the openings of 2001: A Space Odyssey and WALL-E, Rise of the Planet of the Apes presents large chunks of its story visually and without exposition and the film expertly stages, photographs, and edits these scenes together to tell its story and build its characters in an almost cinema verite style. This purely cinematic approach works in part because of the special effects. The visuals achieved here are really quite stunning but in a noticeably staid way. Although the ape revolt does have some big visuals, the bulk of the action is presented credibly and avoids the strobe-like editing or ostentatious slow motion of a Michael Bay or Zack Snyder film. But Rise of the Planet of the Apes really works because of its convincing portrayal of the apes, who are characters instead of just special effects. The computer generated performances have the kind of subtly and care of a performance by human actors and it is a great testament to the skill with which this film has been made when ape characters who do not speak any discernible language have greater presence and depth of characterization than a lot of speaking human roles in other movies.

What Doesn’t: If Rise of the Planet of the Apes is flawed in any noticeable way it is that the film does give itself over to the apes and sacrifices the characterization of the supporting human roles. Frieda Pinto is largely wasted as a zoologist and most of the staff in the ape sanctuary are oppressive guards who don’t have any kind of personality. As this film is based upon Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, it also adopts that film’s simplistic politics, although like Conquest the circumstances of the story do not allow much room for compromise.

Bottom Line: Rise of the Planet of the Apes represents many of the best elements of the Apes series. It entertains with a dramatic story and compelling characters and it manages some insight into the human condition through a rich allegory.

Episode: #360 (October 23, 2011)