When Charlton Heston’s “Planet of the Apes” film came out in 1968, I’m not sure if everyone on board knew how much of an impact this movie would make. Flash forward 33 years later and Tim Burton gave us a less then warmly received remake of “Planet of the Apes” with Mark Whalberg. Jump kick us to 2011, 43 years later since the original Apes movie came out and, believe it or not, were actually getting a PREQUEL (not a remake, not a reimagining or whatever you want to call it), an honest to goodness prequel to the original Heston Apes film. But, do you have to be a hardcore Apes fan to enjoy this, or does this film work for today’s modern, less then ape familiar audiences?
In this present day story, Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist who has created a new drug that could potentially wipe out Alzheimer’s disease, but has been testing it out on apes to see if it’s safe for humans. One particular ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis), has shown incredible advancement in his cognitive and learning processes, thanks to the drug’s side effects boosting his intelligence dramatically. Unfortunately, Caesar has grown too smart and all too tired of human’s mistreatment of him and a revolutionary war for supremacy between apes and humans breaks out, placing the planet’s populace in a struggle to be the dominant species on the planet.
Fun little fact about this film, during production the film was originally called “Rise of the Apes” with no mention of “Planet” or any connection to the Planet franchise whatsoever. It was during production that the film changed titles in order to try to capitalize on the popularity and familiarity of the “Planet” film franchise. This is a good thing because those expecting to see a few “winks” to the original 1968 film and curious as to just how a group of brainy apes could overtake an entire planet, will definitely be rewarded. I honestly was never crazy about this franchise in the first place, not even the original wowed me that much. Thankfully, this film being a prequel, not only sets everything up for fans of the series, but also presents the material in a new, fresh, modern take that makes this story easy to relate to any casual filmgoer. This movie is not just another genetic animal gone wild horror film; this is a serious, animal focused film that tells a story that covers all of its loose ends and tells it in a unique perspective. James Franco, Freida Pinto, and John Lithgow are not the main stars, Caesar the ape is the star,and it’s one of the film’s strongest highpoints.
This film knew from the beginning that the special effects were going to be its trump card, so it utilized the same CGI magic that worked on the “Lord of the Rings” films; not surprising since Andy Serkis (who played Golum in those films) plays Caesar here. The effects are breathtakingly beautiful, you really lose distinction between telling these apes apart from the real thing and thanks to Serkis incredible performance, you see clearly how he develops a personality, expresses emotions, and turns Caesar into more than a flashy effect, but a deep, emotionally evolving character that we can’t take our eyes away from.
This movie easily could have become a mutant animal themed horror film, or turned into an overdramatic eco friendly film; turning animals into heroes and humans into villains. With this film, a little bit of both are used but suffering from zero flaws from either of these genres. We get enough perspective from both the apes and the humans POV that we understand each side’s position and why the apes and the humans do what they feel they have to do.
For example, there’s a point in the film where Caesar is locked up in an ape sanctuary and is trying to recruit the other apes to follow him. When Caesar is preparing his army of apes for their revolution against humanity, the apes just don’t blindly obey him simply because his IQ surpasses theirs. No, like any human prisoner would do while trapped in prison, Caesar makes alliances, conquers rivals, earns trust, and this entire process is perfectly captured and portrayed onscreen through Serkis brilliant performance as this ape, brought on life in every sense of the word through digital magic and real life acting. The cast, though not onscreen enough as the ape, do a fine job filling in our need for human faces. I was worried a bit that Franco couldn’t pull off a genuine scientist but he proved me wrong, though admittedly, he still acted as if he was sleepwalking through certain moments in the film (Nowhere near as bad as when he hosted the Oscars, but still.) I was disappointed with Freida Pinto, not with her performance but because we barely ever saw her. Granted, I know the actors were only meant to be supporting while the ape took the lead, but we barely got to even know her character before we realized she was the magic “insert-romantic-girlfriend-type-character-here” person.
We got some great, talented faces for the supporting-supporting cast like Brian Cox, Tyler Labine, John Lithgow (who I’ve missed seeing in films), and Tom Felton. Felton may have lost his magic wand but he’s still playing Draco Malfoy (in a manner of speaking), while his character may be painstakingly too similar to his Harry Potter role, I enjoyed his performance in this film and I hope he breaks out of that “bad kid” persona so he’s not typecast in future roles. Outside of Franco partially asleep for certain scenes and that Pinto really didn’t get nearly enough screen time; I really don’t have much to complain about this movie. This movie has a bit of everything from drama, action, emotion and it delivers on all aspects. There’s not even a single plot hole or resolution that gets missed, everything in the film’s story gets touched upon and nothing is left dangling or unfinished by the time the credits start rolling. This film is more than just another overpaid prequel extension to a franchise that’s over 40 years old, this a film that has wide range appeal to all kinds of audiences and the premise always maintains its realistic nature. The film never gets too “out there” or presents something too implausible without offering well-detailed, clear, expressive scenes explaining why “this” or “that” happened.
This movie tried something very daring and rich by having a CGI, fictional ape, played by a real live actor; lead the film even beyond the real life actors themselves. Caesar the ape does not steal the movie he IS the movie and that directive approach is what sells this movie and makes it worth your time and your money. The issues with James Franco aside, the cast here is just fantastic and the only real flaw was we didn’t get enough of them but it’s okay because our center stage ape is more than enough limelight material that you don’t feel cheated out of anything. The story is presented well with every plot hole and plot point covered, nothing is left unresolved or unexplained, and it carries a message that makes the audiences think rather than freak them out with cheap monster horror scares or flash them with snazzy special effects. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a surprisingly excellent addition to some of the finest films to come out this year and being familiar with the franchise is not required to enjoy this film. This is no monkey monster movie; this is just a damn fine movie.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets a 9 out of 10.