Screen Rant’s Ben Kendrick reviews Rise of the Planet of the Apes

At first glance, the decision by 20th Century Fox to capitalize on the familiarity of the Planet of the Apes franchise – changing the title of this film from Caesar to Rise of the Apes to Rise of the Planet of the Apes – could seem as though audiences are being sold style over substance.

While Rise of the Planet of the Apes director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), probably wasn’t in charge of the film’s final title, the obvious push to sell the movie based on its relationship to Charlton Heston’s iconic sci-fi hit (instead of the film’s own merits) may cause savvy moviegoers to be suspicious. It wouldn’t be the first time that Hollywood has attempted to revive Planet of the Apes – with even Tim Burton  struggling to deliver an enjoyable modern remake.

So does the relatively-unknown Wyatt, paired with Academy Award-nominee James Franco – as well as fan-favorite motion capture actor Andy Serkis – deliver a smart and entertaining prequel/reboot for the Apes franchise?

Fortunately, and surprisingly, the answer is yes. The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not without a number of problems, especially with regard to the film’s pacing, but still manages to offer a compelling tie-in to the cult hit franchise – one that rests heavily on an intriguing psychological arc for an entirely digital chimpanzee.

For anyone unfamiliar with the Rise of the Planet of the Apes storyline, the film follows Will Rodman (James Franco) who is working on a chemical compound designed to cure Alzheimer’s Disease, which happens to afflict his father (John Lithgow). Through a chimpanzee test subject named “Bright Eyes,” Rodman discovers that his compound not only rebuilds damaged brain tissue, but significantly increases intelligence. When his study is suddenly scrapped, following a lab accident, Rodman is forced to put-down all of his primate test subjects and is left to raise a young Chimpanzee named Caesar – who has genetically inherited super-intelligence from his mother. As Caesar grows, it becomes difficult for the chimp to make sense of his role in a human world, as well as withstand his animal impulses.

Andy Serkis and James Franco in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

Rise of the Planet of the Apes would not be possible without the especially impressive efforts of Weta Digital (the team behind Avatar), the CGI effects company who produced, through motion capture, the remarkably life-like performances of the apes. By far the strongest element of the film is Caesar’s arc – which successfully presents a mostly non-verbal evolution of the character from a reckless and charming baby chimpanzee to a contemplative but dangerous adolescent. Weta’s digital protagonist, coupled with another incredibly life-like performance from Andy Serkis, work to create one of the most intriguing connections to an entirely digital character that audiences will have ever experienced. In the end, it’s not just that Caesar looks real – the character, through both the remarkable physical appearance as well as his onscreen actions, is genuinely brought to life.

Surprisingly, the human characters aren’t quite as well realized. Where Caesar’s evolution is unique and compelling, most of the other actors in the film are reduced to very traditional roles. Franco’s Rodman is the obsessed but sensitive scientist who breaks the rules for all the right reasons. The actor does a competent job of interacting with the CGI Caesar – as well as pumping some believable emotion into the human-side of the equation. However, even a talented performer like Franco is somewhat held-back by the film’s interest in his ape counterpart; as a result, Rodman is mostly reacting to the things happening around him – and isn’t given much room to evolve. Similarly, Freida Pinto plays Caroline Aranha, a veterinarian that becomes involved with Rodman – another character that is mostly defined by a relationship, not her actions. Again, Pinto delivers a okay performance in the role but isn’t given anywhere to take it. Lithgow delivers a few charming moments, but the other supporting characters – specifically cruel animal sanctuary wardens John and Dodge Landon (Brian Cox and Tom Felton, respectively) – are one-note caricatures – as is David Oyelowo’s money-hungry executive, Steven Jacobs.

It’s an ironic state of affairs that – in a film about apes that break free from the confines of human oppression – it is the human actors who are restrained by the weight of their digital colleagues.

Caesar leads the attack in 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

Anyone looking for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to put a cap on summer action spectacle will probably get dragged down by the pace of  Wyatt’s film. In spite of the CGI action-heavy finale, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is mostly a plodding character drama – one that features a number of tense, but mostly small-scale, encounters. While everything that’s depicted onscreen is interesting, and successfully works to develop Caesar’s character, the film does get bogged-down at times. The final act offers a number of interesting visuals (most notably an empty suburban street lined with trees – and falling leaves) and successfully depicts the actual rise of the apes – but anyone expecting a large-scale, action-packed, finale might be a little let-down. However, for viewers who are locked into the film’s character moments, the final set-piece manages to deliver both a dramatic and emotional pay-off – not to mention successfully ties the film to the overarching franchise (though Rise takes a number of liberties with the accepted canon).

Planet of the Apes die-hards will, no doubt, notice a few nods to the original films peppered throughout Rise (especially an on-the-nose sequence during the credits). However, it’s important to note that, for anyone who might be turned-off by the campy sci-fi roots of the film, the tie-ins are ancillary to the far more compelling story of Caesar’s psychological evolution. As mentioned, the heavy-handed Planet of the Apes branding may dominate the film’s marketing campaign, but the actual story and characters depicted onscreen successfully rise above the PR blitz to deliver a unique and compelling movie-going experience.

Despite thin human drama, and one note supporting characters, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a surprisingly sincere story that elevates the franchise canon – and delivers one of the most life-like and honest digital characters ever constructed with 1’s and 0’s on a computer.

If you’re still on the fence about Rise of the Planet of the Apes, check out the trailer below:

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If you’ve already seen the film and want to talk about various plot details without ruining it for others, head over to our Rise of the Planet of the Apes spoilers discussion.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick – and let us know what you thought of the film below.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is now playing in theaters.

Our Rating:


4 out of 5
(Excellent)