Rise of the Planet of the Apes – 2011
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton
Written by Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, Premise suggested by La planète des singes by
One of the metrics I like to use to test the effectiveness of a movie is how many useful idiots does the writer / director use to move the plot along. This is an effective measurement in the case of the Die Hard series. The groundbreaking first one works, despite the number, as the idiotic Deputy Police Chief, an overzealous reporter, a coked out co-worker, and a couple of “FBI Guys” named Johnson (unrelated) wreak havoc mainly as comic relief against some really practical bad guys and one impractical good guy. The second movie, the worst of the series, filled with dunces who did everything they could to prevent solutions until they had no choice. My favorite movie, Die Hard with a Vengeance, as well as the last one, Live Free or Die Hard, went to the idea of law men who were more concerned with helping McClane than they were in stopping him.
In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes the only real drawbacks to the film are the two times they rely on the useful idiot. One of which, an old standby from the Harry Potter series, is Tom Felton, known as Draco Malfoy to most. As the malevolent son of the owner of a primate keeping facility named Dodge Landon, Felton treads familiar ground. Threatening perceived inferiors just because he feels inferior himself, Dodge creates the some of the circumstance to motivate the lead character, a chimpanzee named Caesar (played with contemplative mastery by Serkis).
The other useful idiot is a hot head neighbor named Hunsiker. Somehow between several angry rants, fights and confrontations, Hunsiker obtained and maintains a valid pilot’s license for a major airlines. How this plays into the plot I will leave for you to discover. Just don’t turn off the movie before the credits have rolled completely. The instances leading up to this include beating Caesar with a bat, leaving his car door open inexplicably to create another confrontation and getting woefully in the “face” of the wrong lab assistant.
If any one of these events had been handled with caution, much less, forethought, how might the plot have changed? Would the challenge of making these events more plausible have added that much time to develop in the film? Would it have cost more money? These are questions worth asking, because as much money as Rise of the Planet of the Apes made (almost 5x what they spent to make it), it is a good movie that could have been a classic had they toed the line of common sense.
And it is a good movie. Updating the element of mankind’s destruction, and tying those elements to the evolution of the apes is a clever move. The nuclear holocaust today seems like it just might be a bit of a stretch, as it would likely kill every living thing on the planet, or at least make it uninhabitable. The rest of the story is a well-meaning stare into the abyss. If you had a parent suffering and you had the means to do something about it, wouldn’t you?
The most interesting scene in the film is when Serkis’ Caesar, after withstanding harsh treatment from his own kind and from the handlers, has a conversation in sign language with an old circus orangutan named Maurice. Their back and forth provides the backbone for the rest of the story, and gives the credibility a firm foothold on the possibilities presented in the story.
The acting of the primates succeeds on the subtlety of expressions. Serkis, who deserved an Oscar for his role as Gollum in The Two Towers, is incredible here as the ever contemplative, agonized and erstwhile leader of the movement. His development from a happy child, to a confused and brilliant young chimp, to a jailed being who craves the idea of freedom. His Caesar, while not topping Gollum, does give the best performance of the film. In fact, I would say the top 2 or 3 performances are all simian. Karin Konoval as the afore-mentioned Maurice, along with Richard Ridings as a solitary gorilla and Christopher Gordon as Koba, the brilliant, grudge carrying bonobo all offer wordless communication until now unseen in a major action picture. The result is a refreshing contrast to loud stuff like Green Lantern, Thor and Transformers Dark of the Moon.
There are some loud noises, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, but they make sense, for the most part. The special effects primarily concentrate on the very convincing simians. This renders the humans as the most unconvincing race in the film. Franco, as Dr. Will Rodman, does a good job moving the vials along, if you can forgive the lapse in logic of not quarantining someone after being exposed. Not sure I could buy him as a brilliant chemist, but that’s negated by the fact that he does such a wonderful job showing compassion for his ailing father, played by effectively by John Lithgow.
Freida Pinto, one of the most beautiful women in the world, is an ironic choice as a zoo veterinarian who becomes Rodman’s girlfriend. The height of human physical evolution, her performance requires much less in the way of dialogue than some of her other roles, most notably Slumdog Millionaire, but it is not hard to picture her as compassionate and educated.
This is a solid effort, and based on results, the continuation of a great adventure. It could have been great, to be sure, but were it not for the short cuts of useful idiots. One hopes that they continue to seek the high road, giving this series back some of the credibility lost through the 70’s sequels and that Tim Burton oddity.
(**** out of *****)