The “Planet of the Apes” series is a franchise with quality that varies from the respected 1968 Charleton Heston classic to the shameful sequels. We’ve seen what the future holds, with the apes ruling the earth as humans are forced into submission or subterranean lifestyles. With the series spanning five films and a successful Tim Burton remake, any more continuations would seem repetitive. So what do movie studios do in that situation? They continue the long-running series with a fresh reboot, of course. Although many may approach the film skeptically — if they even approach it at all — “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” surprisingly provides a much needed overhaul to the series, as the film brims high with emotions and captivating sympathy that ends up drawing the viewers into the humble beginnings of the apes and the reasons why the planet ultimately becomes theirs.
The film opens with a beautifully lush CG jungle scene, where we see the apes being captured for medical experiments by means of cruel traps and tranquilizer guns. Cut to San Francisco where Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease through testing with chimpanzees. After yet again failing in the eyes of the board and his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), Rodman comes into the possession of baby chimp Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis). With Rodman’s father Charles (John Lithgow) continuing to suffer from Alzheimer’s, Will’s determination to find a cure increases to desperate levels. Conducting tests at home with Caesar, Will finds that Caesar is no ordinary zoo ape. It’s not long before Caesar proves himself as intellectually superior than the average ape, living proof that Will’s formula works. However, after a series of violent, discriminating incidents with humans, Caesar begins to question his loyalty with mankind. It isn’t long after that Caesar stages an angry ape rebellion, thus commencing the reign of the apes.
While the film’s action-packed Bay Area rampage is saved until the end, the lead-up to the hairy, rampaging finale is what truly separates this film from the failed sequel or reboot bin. Although the apes are made of bits and computer code, the connection that Caesar forms with Will and the other apes feels more real and convincing than the dramatic skills of some of Hollywood’s latest blockbuster actors. Caesar’s integration into human society and his initial struggle to survive amongst the apes is an emotional roller-coaster of acceptance, rejection and ultimately bitter triumph. You can’t help but feel pangs of compassion when Caesar is bullied or tortured, or even feeling slightly joyful when Caesar finally gets his revenge on the humans — even if it eventually leads to us giving up nature’s throne as the dominant species. Caesar may be animated instead of an authentic ape, but his CG character commands the audience’s emotions as well as, if not more, than the film’s human actors.
The apes’ life-like quality is most likely due to the film’s superb CG effects. The scenes in Muir Woods and the bombardment of San Francisco truly show off the flourishing visuals. The great Redwood trees are smooth and vibrantly colored as the apes climb and swing from the branches. The Golden Gate Bridge battle is nicely detailed, with the apes swinging their way over and under the eloquently-crafted bridge. With its stunning graphics, “Rise” is able to captivate the viewers in emotionally as well as visually.
Sadly, the human actors aren’t quite as convincing as their ape counterparts. Franco is definitely the most believable of the cast (and that’s saying something). His relationship with Caesar is heartwarming and convincing, but he lacks the magnetism of his ape counterpart — unless you count his usual smug charm and good looks. Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) portrays the love interest Caroline Aranha. Similar to Franco, the actress is mostly there to highlight the plight of the apes. The rest of the cast’s performances are even less noteworthy. Although it is sort of fun to see Tom Felton outside of Harry Potter. Too bad he winds up playing the Muggle, American equivalent to Malfoy, as he once again portrays a cocky asshole who enjoys causing suffering and misery to those around him.
With average acting and dazzling effects, “Rise” manages to even out as a fairly entertaining film. The film may not be as effective a reboot as “Batman Begins” or “X-men: First Class,” but Caesar’s complex connections with humans and apes carries the movie and builds from its innocent beginning to a powerful conclusion. Although the slow-brewing plotline makes the film feel longer than its 105 minute timeline, director Rupert Wyatt has created a visually radiant film that somehow forms an oddly touching connection between the audience and those “damn dirty apes.”