Film Reviews

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Rupert Wyatt

Rating - 8/10

I’m fairly sickened by the ever-burgeoning trend to cannibalize old shitty movies and TV shows to substitute for a dearth of ideas needed to fulfill product and contractual obligations.  Really, who needed a movie based on Land of the Lost?  And now they’re doing Sigmund and the Sea Monsters?  What’s next, H.R. Puffnstuff?  I’m sure many of you feel the same, and so you might get queasy hearing about a new prequel (to 1968’s Planet of the Apes) which is actually something of a remake (of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes).  But here’s the thing – the original Planet of the Apes was not a shitty movie at all.  Sure, it has a lead performance by Charlton Heston that is worth its weight in campy gold and enough earnest dialogue by screenplay writer Rod Serling (et al) to choke a horse, but in the final analysis it’s a cracking good adventure movie with a ton of great ideas, astoundingly good makeup work, and an ending that taught M. Night Shyamalan a thing or two.*  The subsequent sequels dropped off in quality, but many of the interesting ideas were fleshed out, which makes some of them worth checking out.

The absurdly overrated Tim Burton tried his hand at this material with his 2001 remake – yes, it was a very dark year.  Since storytelling is not Burton’s strong suit (that’s right, I said it), the film was, unsurprisingly, an unequivocal failure.  It looked good, but that’s to be expected from Burton, who is almost exclusively a visual artist and whose films only rarely tell a coherent story, and when they do, it’s probably an accident.  So you could almost hear the collective “you gotta be kidding me” when we all first heard that they were rebooting the series and sticking the love-em or hate-em James Franco in the starring role, fresh from his crucifixion on the Oscars.  I don’t think Franco is the greatest actor on the block, but I dig what he’s been up to and he’s one of the few movie stars who, as a real person, makes sense to me.  That’s probably why everyone else thinks he’s crazy, but so be it.  But that’s a rant for another day.  Here, I’m happy report that while  Franco will not be winning any awards for his work in this film, he’s eminently watchable as usual.  I’ve heard some reviewers complain he was miscast, but that sounds a little too much like Tom Cruise syndrome; ie, I don’t like him so I don’t want to see his face.  He’s fine.  In fact, everyone is fine, except for the one person who is being rightly singled out as a bit miraculous, and that’s Andy Serkis, who plays lead chimp Caesar, and who is the reigning king of motion capture techno-acting (He also played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, probably the best thing in those movies as well).  I’m what you might call a skeptic on the use of digital media in the arts, and even I was fully invested in Caesar’s story and I rooted for him all the way through.  It’s hard to overstate what a thin line Serkis and director Rupert Wyatt are walking here.  Since the technology can now catch all of the actor’s facial mannerisms it would have been easy to make Caesar all too human.  He evolves as he gains intelligence and experience, but his emotional range remains limited, and we never forget that he is still just a smart ape. 

What you might have heard is that the series has morphed from a cautionary tale about nuclear war to an animal-rights manifesto, thanks to the notorious self-righteousness of Hollywood executives. But Rise never feels preachy or gets weighted down by any supposed message its trying to send. Once again, they focus the story on one ape, rather than the whole damn animal kingdom, and so you end up caring about that ape as a fellow living thing. You're allowed to anthropomorphize on this one because, after all, that's the whole idea. So really what we have is a popcorn munching prison-break movie, which is probably why the money folks picked Wyatt, an almost complete unknown, to helm a gargantu-budget extravaganza. Wyatt's first and only film was the well-received prison-escape movie, The Escapist. Still, cudos for rolling the dice on a new talent who was smart enough to do his thing like he knew how. By simply (well, not so simply) telling Caesar's story and not getting bogged down in the extraneous stuff that gives the nerds and liberals hard-ons, Wyatt has almost guaranteed the film's wide appeal.

*  Actually the ending is very similar to an old Twilight Zone episode, I Shot an Arrow into the Air.  And if you know your Longfellow, you know why).