Back in May I did an overview of the summer’s genre films and I speculated—speculated, mind you, not predicted—that Super 8 might be the big winner. Boy was I wrong. Not only did the film underperform, it pretty much stunk.
Also in that post, while I was carrying on about Super 8, I devoted a quick paragraph to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and I’m the first to admit I was completely wrong about my predictions, saying it would have a soft opening and would be kind of…meh. It opened big—over $54 million last weekend—and critical reviews were pretty solid. My curiosity was piqued, so I saw it this morning. Here’s my review:
James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a genetics engineer working at one of those gigantic, glass-and-metal drug conglomerates. He’s created ALZ 112, a virus-based drug that he hopes will treat Alzheimer’s disease by allowing the brain to regenerate itself. Testing on chimpanzees reveals an interesting side-effect: they’ve become considerably more intelligent and (unnoticed by humans) considerably more self-aware.
During a meeting with investors, his star subject, Bright Eyes (a nod to Charlton Heston’s character’s nickname in the original), goes berserk when they try to take her out of her cage, and Will’s employer, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), orders all of the test chimps to be destroyed. However, his assistant, Robert (Tyler Labine) discovers the source of Bright Eyes’ rage: she’d been protecting her newborn infant that she’d been hiding from the scientists.
Will takes the male chimp to the home he shares with his Alzheimer’s afflicted father, Charles (John Lithgow). When Will discovers that the young ape, which they name Caesar, has inherited the positive effects of ALZ 112 in utero from his mother, he decides to administer the drug to Charles.
The change is miraculous. Not only does his father recover, he improves. Unfortunately, the effects don’t last long (Charles’ own immune system is actually destroying the drug), and Will finds himself back at the lab, asking Jacobs for the resources to develop a new, stronger formula. With dollar signs in his eyes, his boss agrees, giving him carte blanche. Will creates ALZ 113 (of course), which proves disastrous for human and ape alike.
This sounds like a pretty good setup, doesn’t it? And indeed it is. Rise is truly one of the big surprises of this summer. Surprisingly self-assured, it unapologetically demands that the viewer go along with some of its more absurd plot twists, but it trusts that said viewer will become so invested in the story that he or she will accept them. I certainly did.
The film touches on hot-button themes like animal activism and corporate greed, but it doesn’t get bogged down in them.
What makes it so effective is the level of emotion that is persuasively conveyed throughout. Among the humans, the wonderful John Lithgow delivers a poignant performance as Charles, whose cognizance is restored and then taken away from him again. Frieda Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) is attractive as a zoo veterinarian who gets involved with Will and his brood. Labine is also a standout as Robert, whose devotion to the apes results in tragedy.
But the real emotional content is provided by the apes, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis, well-known as Gollum in the LOTR trilogy). He should get a special Oscar nomination for CGI mo-cap. And who played the orangutan? That’s another winning performance!
Now about Franco. Many critics really loathe his acting in the film, but I think a lot of them despise him—period—after all of his hijinks. Frankly, if the film’s emotional level varies from one to ten, he probably measures a consistent five, but he’s not awful. Worse is Oyelow as Jacobs, a two-dimensional “nyah ha ha” mustache-twirling corporate villain. And David Hewlett, as Will’s perpetually pissed-off neighbor, reminded me of Michael McKean in The Brady Bunch Movie.
Peter Jackson’s sfx company WETA Digital created the apes, and they do a fine job. Never for a moment do you forget that you’re watching CGI, but the story is so compelling that you don’t care. That was the same thing that happened during LOTR. And their efforts are in the service of a far better film than Peter Jackson’s bloated, overlong King Kong remake from 2005 (with Serkis as Kong). Director Rupert Wyatt wisely chooses to play up the emotional content rather than turning it into an idiotic slam-slam-crasher like Transformers…or Super 8! The action scenes, while well-staged, are more restrained than usual and therefore more effective.
The final conflagration, on the Golden Gate Bridge, is exciting, but some of the less extreme scenes are even more memorable: residents of a tree-lined suburban street are startled when thousands of green leaves fall to the ground, only to look up and see Caesar and his ape army leaping through the branches; Caesar’s unbridled joy when Will takes him to the coastal redwoods for the first time; and the aforementioned orangutan communicating with Caesar in sign language. And, as another reviewer wrote, “It’s an end of the world movie that makes us forget it’s an end of the world movie.”
With the film’s clever coda, Fox has set up another Apes franchise. Let’s hope they took a lesson from the original series and don’t go cheap and silly. The studio did a good job rescuing X-Men this year, so I’m optimistic. Let’s see what kind of legs it has this coming weekend. The main competitors are the new 3D films Final Destination and Glee (barf), but the former is rated R and the latter is a concert film. And I don’t think a whole lot people are going to shell out 3D admission prices for something they can see for free at home.