Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Of all the movies I’ve seen this summer, I don’t think I’ve had a more conflicted reaction than I did to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  I’m a big fan of the original film series, and Tim Burton’s sad attempt at a remake in 2001 didn’t leave me with much confidence in future films.  I can confidently say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes exceeded my expectations.  It’s a well-crafted, thoughtful movie inspired by the earlier series with great writing and visual effects.  I can also confidently say any new movie series that follows it will be terrible.

Let’s start with the the good.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist whose experimental Alzheimer’s medication is being tested on chimpanzees.  When an outburst causes the program to be shut down, Will smuggles a baby chimp home with him, which grows to be the remarkably intelligent Caesar (Andy Serkis, kind of, mostly covered by motion capture effects).  Inevitably, Caesar is taken away from Will and placed in an abusive animal shelter, where he curses his fate and begins to plan an escape.

It’s all very well-written, and thoughtful on a level most summer blockbusters aren’t.  Andy Serkis/the visual effects department steals the show as Caesar, whose thoughts and pain are as heartbreaking as they are convincing.  Franco does a great job too, as does John Lithgow as his Alzheimer’s-stricken father.  The movie flows naturally and organically throughout, leading to scenes of apes throwing spears at cars which manage to maintain suspension of disbelief.  The plot mirrors a number of elements of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes while creating a cautionary tale about animal research and the definition of intelligent life.

That’s not to say there aren’t flaws.  Will’s repeated flouting of both man and God’s law grows a little tiresome, and a number of human characters, particularly Will’s girlfriend/maybe-wife? and the nasty shelter assistant (a typecast Tom Felton), feel almost like afterthoughts.  But overall, it’s an engaging, sad, beautiful movie, and well worth the price of admission.

Here’s the problem.  The original Planet of the Apes was effectively an extended Twilight Zone episode.  It juggled camp, action, and dense discussions of scientific investigation versus religious faith.  But most of all, it was fun.  Charlton Heston leaped around shouting curses at his enemies.  Sequels involved underground mutants who prayed Christian-style Masses to a nuclear warhead and a button which destroyed the entire planet.  It had a sense of humor, even as it dealt with social issues.

That’s what was missing in the Burton remake (among many, MANY other things), and that’s what will be absent here.  The Planet of the Apes is like sausage; you don’t want to see how it’s made.  I’m sure there’s discussions and scripts floating around for a number of sequels which detail a gritty, morally ambiguous war between a new race of intelligent apes and the last desperate remnants of humanity.  They’ll probably all be well-written and have great special effects.  But without the camp, without the rubber masks, without the fun, it really won’t be Planet of the Apes, at least not to me.

But again, that’s not this movie’s fault.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a great take on an old premise, and I highly recommend you check it out.

RATING: THREE STARS (OUT OF FOUR)

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