Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the seventh film to spring from the pages of Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel Planet of the Apes. That novel is really just the genesis of the idea, because none of the films accurately follow its storyline. The 1968 film Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston kicked off a franchise that spawned four sequels. The 2001 remake starring Mark Wahlberg and directed by Tim Burton was a new take on the story. Although a box office hit, it isn’t generally well-remembered. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a kind of rebooted prequel to the 1968 film. The film cleverly refers to the 1968 film, weaving itself into the original while at the same time creating its own story line. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not be a classic on the level of the original Planet of the Apes, but it is a thoroughly enjoyable and imaginative film.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes stars James Franco as Dr. William Rodman, a scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. As the film begins, Dr. Rodman’s drug ALZ-112 is being tested on primates. Though the drug shows promise, the program is shut down when a test ape goes wild. The remaining test subjects are put down. Dr. Rodman manages to save an infant chimpanzee, secretly continuing his research at home. He has a very personal reason for wanting the ALZ-212 to be a successful cure; his own father is suffering with late-stage Alzheimer’s. The infant chimp, an offspring of one of the test animals, is exceptionally intelligent. Rodman’s ailing father takes a liking to the baby chimp and names him Caesar.
While the original Planet of the Apes focused more on sociological concepts such as racism and class differences, this film is centered more on science. The new film’s story is a catalyst for a major change in civilization, with science gone awry being the cause. In the original Planet of the Apes Charlton Heston’s Taylor stumbles into a society that was formed long ago. The third sequel to the original Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), offers some similar concepts to the origins of a planet ruled by apes. Some bloggers even speculated (or actually thought) that Rise was a direct remake of that film. In the 1972 film an intelligent ape, also named Caesar, leads an ape revolution. That is more or less where the similarities end, as the concepts and storyline in Rise move in an entirely different direction.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not completely devoid of sociological ideas. As little Caesar grows up he begins to notice he is not like his human family. Dr. Rodman leads him around on leash when they venture out into public. When Caesar asks Dr. Rodman if he is a pet, the doctor insists that he is not. But Caesar knows he is not human either. Caesar doesn’t fit in with other apes, and knowing he cannot be like them he wonders if they can be like him. Caesar carefully hatches a plan that will draw other apes closer to him. The consequence is that Caesar is drawn away from his best friend and father figure, Dr. Rodman.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an entertaining story that is both emotional and thrilling. Caesar and the other apes feel like real characters. Though I was at first skeptical about the apes being entirely computer generated, the motion capture technology allows for realistic movement and expressions which allayed my reservations. Though he doesn’t physically appear in the finished film, Andy Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings trilogy), played Caesar during the actual filming. He, along with the effects crew, bring the character to life. It is surprising to feel such real emotion from a computer-animated character, but it is there. The weakness of Rise is in its underdevelopment of the human characters.
James Franco is fine as Dr. Rodman, but the character is not very dynamic. Considering what Franco was capable of in a movie like 127 Hours, it’s too bad the movie didn’t get more from him. His character lacked emotional weight that could have brought more to this story. Perhaps the thinking was that this movie was more about Caesar than Dr. Rodman, so growth was not a priority for that character. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) as Rodman’s girlfriend Dr. Caroline Aranha is the film’s biggest waste of a potentially good character. Aranha (I’m not sure her name is even mentioned in the film) is a veterinarian who stiches up a cut on young Caesar’s arm. Rodman asks her out after Caesar signs some encouragement to him. From that point on Aranha is a constant companion to Rodman and by extension Caesar. Though the movie spans eight years, it is never explained if they got married or even how they became so committed. Though Aranha occasionally offers some advice on chimps, her expertise on the subject is never utilized. Mostly she just follows Dr. Rodman around and stays out of the way.
Most of the other side characters are familiar movie clichés. Brian Cox is wasted in a tiny role as an unscrupulous head of a primate sanctuary. His son Dodge, played by Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) is a sadistic animal caretaker. David Oyelowo plays Steven Jacobs, the head of the research facility Dr. Rodman works at. Jacobs is more interested in money, as well as pleasing the board of directors, than ethics. John Lithgow turns in a very effective performance as Dr. Rodman’s ailing father. It’s a small but ultimately pivotal role, and one of the few human characters to experience a broad range of emotions. Clearly the focus of Rise was on the apes, thankfully the excellent effects make them a worthy focal point.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is framed at 2.35:1 on a dual layer 50GB Blu-ray. The movie was not shot digitally, but rather on 35mm and as a result the transfer has a natural film-like quality. The exteriors forest scenes look incredibly detailed, with individual leaves on the redwood trees being easy to distinguish. The many digital effects also have an impressive level of detail, including the fur and skin textures of the apes. A big part of this is that the effects are so realistic, but the Blu-ray transfer registers all of it effectively. I did not notice any print flaws. Black levels are deep and solid. Everything about Rise looks great in high definition. Fox really delivered the Blu-ray quality this film deserves.
Almost as important as the visuals to the success of Rise is the audio. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio does not disappoint in any way. The sound design throughout Rise is very intricate, with many different ape sounds. The scenes in the ape habitat are a great example of how well the audio is mixed. You’re literally surrounded by layers of ape chirping, hooting, and grunting. The rear channels are very active during these scenes. The most impressive part is the Golden Gate bridge showdown, where ape noise, gunfire, human voices, and Patrick Doyle’s score all combine perfectly. Every element of audio is well balanced, with a strong level of bass from the subwoofer. Other audio options include an English 5.1 Descriptive Audio track and 5.1 Dolby Digital in French or Spanish.
Just the right amount of well-produced special features help to shed a lot of light on the making of Rise. We find two audio commentaries, one from director Rupert Wyatt and one from screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. Twelve minutes of very interesting deleted scenes offer a chance to see Andy Serkis playing Caesar, as the digital effects had not been added in yet. There are some temporary effects in some, but for the most part we see Serkis in his motion-capture outfit. Instead of one long documentary, there are a little over one hour’s worth of featurettes. These range from informational pieces on real apes to the specifics of motion capture technology. “Mythology of the Apes” does a great job of showing how many “easter eggs” were written into Rise to connect it with the original film series. A very cool “Scene Breakdown” features allows the viewer to see select scenes in the various stages of effects development, from the initial animation to the finished product.