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Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes review


After a false start with Tim Burton in 2001, a new Planet Of The Apes movie finally gets it right...

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011)

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes succeeds where Tim Burton's 2001 reboot/remake failed dismally - by cutting through the Klingon-style chic of the 'intelligent ape' culture to get to the core of what kept audiences coming back to the Apes movies for decades in one form or another - a good story, good character development - and a very uncomfortable empathy with the main characters.

Rise draws most of its DNA, simian and otherwise, from the relatively under-regarded fourth entry in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) - an urban sci-fi tale that concentrates on the interim between the decline of human culture and the incipient rise from slavery of the ape culture. Conquest is a dark outing indeed, channelling the rise of black consciousness - and advents such as the Camden Riots - in the 1970s, and the producers quickly pulled back from the film's tone of violence and menace by amending the original ending and following it up with the more child-friendly Battle For The Planet Of The Apes.

Likewise, the new film is almost Fincher-dark, and flawed only by the slightly-dragging pace of the first 30-40 minutes (of a 105-minute runtime) and a small handful of weakly written/performed walk-on parts. Get past that, and you're talking about a substantial entry in a much-revered sci-fi franchise. Even better, Rise slots as neatly into the flow of the original Apes movies (by filling in the gap between Escape and Conquest, albeit with imperfect respect to canon) as into any new sequels that may issue from it.

But yes, there is departure from canon here - it's established in the first five minutes that intelligent apes are destined to arise not from any spontaneous Darwinism, but from an I Am Legend/Deep Blue Sea-style genetic retrovirus being developed by Will Rodman (James Franco) to counteract the Alzheimer's Disease suffered by his father (John Lithgow). Naturally, lab-apes are key to the research. When hitches in the lab trials cause the project to be scrapped, only one of the test-subjects is spared - 'Caesar'.

An uncommonly intelligent specimen, even among the advanced standards of the test group, the good-natured but insecure ape is kept cloistered from the world as he grows up, until his inevitable discovery by the authorities finds him for the first time in the company of his peers in a simian compound run by neglectful proprietor Charles Rodman (Brian Cox) and his vicious chief warder (Tom Felton). Here, no longer sheltered from the law of the jungle, Caesar must fight or die - but first, he has to decide who his enemies really are, and what means, if any, are at hand to begin the struggle...

The original Apes movies present a classic time-travel paradox concerning how the 'culture of apes' arose, when two ape scientists from the future (Roddy McDowell as 'Cornelius' and Kim Hunter as 'Zira') travel back to 1970s America and give birth to Caesar, the founder of intelligent ape culture. Though rewritten for Rise, this plot-device is acknowledged in one of a series of fan-pleasing but relatively unobtrusive nods to the original movies.

As with any 'origin' story, the movie's locus of interest takes a while to come to the fore, and consequently you may need a modicum of well-rewarded patience. Although James Franco and John Lithgow provide excellent lead performances, Freida Pinto's ape-vet proves purely to be love-interest and marketing-material for the movie's target demographics, with no harm or benefit  rendered to the plot by her inclusion.

The same can't be said of some of the supporting performances. Though Brian Cox has nothing more to prove after the likes of Manhunter and 25th Hour, his 'stock Hollywood villain' is now as templated as those of Gary Oldman or Sean Bean ever were over the last 15-20 years, and neither director Rupert Wyatt nor writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver seem to be making any new demands on him.

But both the acting and dialogue fall almost to the level of a 1980s teen-slasher movie in the scenes with sadistic ape-guard Tom Felton, whilst David Oyelowo, so good in The Last King Of Scotland, is handed some irrecoverably bad lines and character development in his role as James Franco's boss.

Thankfully Weta Digital, in concert with most of the other VFX companies who fuelled Avatar, provide more convincing characters in the form of Caesar himself and an amazingly-conceived and very distinctive cast of CGI apes. Do they look at all fake? Yes, sometimes, but only because what you're seeing is impossible in the real world, and even motion-capture veteran Andy Serkis (King Kong, Lord Of The Rings) can't entirely get round the tendency to make all those expensive visuals look more 'beautiful' than realistic sometimes. And yes, sometimes the CG-eyes don't convince. However, not only does the excellent standard of CGI improve throughout the movie to provide some ground-breaking accomplishments, but in fact it does not matter one jot either way - because the story of Caesar's struggle is compelling and ingeniously thought-out, both with respect to the existing classic franchise and to current tastes. Nor is Rise unleavened by any lighter moments - keeping true to the earlier movies, the humour is admittedly sometimes dark, but it's there to enjoy.

Though the subject-matter allows for some very disturbing violence, Rise manages maximum tension and involvement without descending to shock tactics, for which both the director and writers deserve the highest praise. For all its CGI-wizardry, the film's greatest achievement is recognising what an excellent, almost Shakespearean character Conquest's Caesar was, and developing it with due tribute to Roddy McDowell. One minute you're on Caesar's side, the next you're wondering if what he's doing is entirely justifiable. Rise will have you shifting in your seat morally, and its market-tapping core story includes but transcends the teen-demographics so crucial to Avatar's success.

The movie has clearly been shot with a view to 3D conversion, with some of the more elaborate virtual camera moves distractingly complex, but it's unarguably  an ideal showcase for the technique. 3D can save box-office receipts better than it can save bad movies, but it 's not needed in this case. With its few faults forgiveable, there's really only one recommendation I can make for this movie:

Go Ape!

4 stars

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes opens in the US on the 5th of August and in the UK on the 11th.

Also see:

Evolution of the Planet Of The Apes franchise

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Blu-ray review

The last great frontier of CGI: The eye


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#1 Solid Review Mark Iveson 2011-07-31 11:52
Well done Martin,

As someone who grew up watching the Ape movies & TV shows, its a one to look forward to. You kept things to the point.

Opinions to films will always vary, and you can't please everyone. I think this film will be open to a lot of debate between fans and critics.

Interesting to see what happens!
#2 Expertly written... Luke Connolly 2011-07-31 14:01 Martin - well done. I'm pleased, because when I first heard about this I was genuinely disappointed...yet another classic dragged through a CGI makeover; yet your review suggests a different story, so I'm adding it to my 'must-see' list.

Two more things:
1. It's made me realise I still have much to learn and
2. You like the word simian, don't you ;)
#3 RE: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes review Martin Anderson 2011-07-31 14:08
Quoting Luke Connolly:
You like the word simian, don't you ;)

Not as much as I like that classic picture (see above) of the campaigning gorilla :) I'd kill to have a cup with that on (though I probably wouldn't go higher than a tenner on eBay)...

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