2011 // USA // Rupert Wyatt // September 3, 2011 // Theatrical Print (AMC West Olive)
As near as I can discern, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes is partly a reboot-prequel to the well-regarded 1968 science-fiction landmark Planet of the Apes, and partly a spiritual remake of that film's less-well-regarded sequel-prequel from 1972, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Setting aside the convoluted, essentially distracting matter of the film's status within the wider franchise, however, and what you have is a pretty standard science-fiction action flick. As a finger-wagging fable about humankind's disheartening failures towards its scientific monsters, Rise is meaty, entertaining stuff, a popcorn-movie complement to James Marsh's more sobering documentary Project Nim. Unfortunately, there's plenty of flaws to pick at in this post-Darwin Frankenstein tale. There's the cartoonish simplicity of its heroes and villains, and its lazy re-imagining of the original film's nuclear apocalypse as a corporate biotechnological doom. There's the useless female love interest, the awkward homages to the original film, the sci-fi gobbledegook that strains credibility, and the scads of gaping plot holes.
And yet... The motion-captured performances—including a lead turn from mainstay Andy Serkis as chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar—while plainly computer-generated, are as captivating as any of the work by the flesh-and-blood actors. That's not to dismiss the talents of James Franco, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, and the rest of the ensemble, but it's evidence that digital performances have reached the point where they can be downright absorbing in their own right. (It's also evidence that the human dialog from scripting team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver might be part of the problem here.) What's most interesting about Rise is how thoroughly its asks us to sympathize with Caesar, and how relatively modest its spectacle ultimately proves to be. Culminating in a stand-off on the Golden Gate Bridge between a SWAT team and a group of fugitive apes bound for the sanctuary of Muir Woods, the film offers but the first few steps in the apes' eventual conquest of Earth. It's a visually invigorating climax, but qualifies as but one encounter in a larger origin story, rather than a genuine turning point in the war between hairy ape and less-hairy ape.