Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Critic rating:
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MPAA rating: PG-13
This "Planet of the Apes" origin story renders the titular apes as both sympathetic and terrifying.
Starring: James Franco, Freida Pinto
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Release: Opened Aug 5, 2011
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Editorial Review

The humans play second bananas

By Michael O'Sullivan

Friday, Aug 05, 2011

First, the good news. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," the much-anticipated prequel to the sci-fi movie franchise of the late '60s and early '70s about a world ruled by apes, gets one thing exactly right. The apes, which we see on the cusp of world domination, are both terrifying and sympathetic.

That's not an easy trick. Yet it's critical to this origin story, which charts the ascent of a hyper-intelligent chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis, in motion-capture CGI) to the role of leader of an ape underground, after suffering abuse at the hands of a sadistic handler at a primate shelter (Tom Felton). As rendered by computer animators instead of actors in makeup, Caesar and his simian followers are both relatable and scary as heck.

Now for the bad news. The filmmakers seem to have spent so much attention and, presumably, money on getting the primates right that they completely forgot about the people.

Led by a mumble-mouthed James Franco (see also: Oscar-hosting performance) in the role of Will Rodman, a research scientist whose experimental Alzheimer's cure leads to a sudden jump in one young lab chimp's IQ, the cast of human actors is uniformly weak. John Lithgow is especially embarrassing as Will's dodderingly senile father, but the list of offenders - and their acting offenses - is long.

At one end of the dramatic spectrum is Freida Pinto, who's almost invisible as Will's veterinarian girlfriend. At the other end there's David Oyelowo, who chews the scenery and spits it out as Will's money-grubbing pharmaceutical-company boss. Brian Cox is somewhere in between. As the director of the animal shelter where the apes foment their revolution after Caesar is sent there for attacking a human, Cox exudes smarmily sinister incompetence but little else. As for Felton, his character's malevolence is even more over the top than the actor's work in the "Harry Potter" movies, where he played the maleficent Draco Malfoy.

Here's a movie mixing live action and CGI in which the humans are the least interesting thing about it. Not to mention the least plausible.

While the film succeeds in making those apes frightening - and believably emotive, at least in a way that their flesh-and-blood counterparts are not - they're less than fully present. As often happens with CGI, they come frighteningly close to being just right. But the nearer they get to it, the more we're aware that they're not quite there. The hair, the eyes, the skin, the facial expressions: It's all uncanny, but it misses the mark by millimeters. Roddy McDowell - Serkis's 1968 predecessor - was, paradoxically, more real, even in his stiff rubber mask. So, for that matter, was Helena Bonham Carter in her more technically sophisticated 2001 makeup.

As for the story itself, it's adequately well told and, by "Planet of the Apes" standards, plausible. The action is thrilling at times, especially in a climactic confrontation that takes place between the apes and the humans on the Golden Gate Bridge, whose cables and girders provide a frenzied army of orangutans, chimps and gorillas a setting for a beautifully choreographed battle royal. Recent news developments in the world of troubled chimp-human relations - notably the "Project Nim" documentary and the 2009 mauling of a woman by a pet chimp - also lend the film a shiver of contemporary verisimilitude.

There are, of course, a few nods to the old series along the way. You didn't think you would get through this without someone saying, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape," did you?

Hearing that line again is fun, but it's also an unfortunate reminder that "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is far from a classic.

Contains some intense violence and scary scenes of apes going berserk.