4 1/2 stars
Let me start by saying that I have never been a big fan of the Planet of the Apes franchise. When I first heard about this film's impending release, my initial reaction was "Another one?". My second reaction was to yawn. I truly had no intention to see it.
Then I saw the first trailer. It looked far more interesting than I had expected. Hell, it looked good. The critical response followed suit, as did the box office. Next thing you know, I found myself on the way to the theater to see it. I am so, SO glad that I did.
So much great science fiction centers around humanity's quest to improve their lives through technology, consequently causing their own downfall. This movie flips that template on end. Mankind's destruction at its own hands serves as a backdrop to this story, but this tale is not really ABOUT mankind. It is about the apes, and it is especially about Caesar.
Much has been said in the media about Andy Serkis's performance. Be prepared... I'm about to say more. We all know how well Serkis does this kind of work (motion capture) from the Lord of the Rings trilogy. His work as Gollum was outstanding, but nothing compared to his performance here. When Caesar is a child, his reactions are simplistic, almost like a normal chimpanzee. Awe, wonder, terror, all those overblown childhood expressions that never look as comfortable on the faces of adults, are captured brilliantly. The real challenge, though, comes as Caesar ages. Serkis is given the daunting task of conveying all the complex inner workings of a well developed leading role through facial expression alone and does it so well that the audience never thinks of him as an animal, or monster. In this award worthy turn, Serkis makes Caesar more human than the humans.
Which bothered me, if I'm being honest, as I watched the film. Most of the human cast is fairly two-dimensional by comparison to their simian counterparts. Of course, this is totally by design, and becomes essential to the film's thematic development, as we'll discuss later. Still, the limited demands of playing Will Redman seemed to be a waste of James Franco's considerable talents. Only John Lithgowe, as Will's dementia ridden father Charles, is given any sort of emotional range to work in.
Writers Jaffa and Silver do an excellent job of crafting a very creative prequel to a well known series. One can easily see how the events in this film could unfold over centuries to create the world of The Planet of the Apes.Yet, this is still a perfect insertion point for new fans, whole in and of itself, with a needfully modernized tone and pacing. For returning fans, there are a few subtle tips of the hat to the original. Caesar's mother is named "Bright Eyes" just as Charlton Heston's character was dubbed by his ape captors. There is another moment that repeats a line from the first film in a similarly flipped allusion. I would say more, but it would be far too much of a spoiler.
The special effects work here is tremendous. Much of the film, including some complex action sequences near the end, is completely reliant upon a perfect marriage of motion capture, original CGI, and live action footage. I've never seen these elements integrated more intricately or seamlessly. This film should be a formidable competitor in this year's Visual Effects race, as well as in one or both of the sound categories.
Ultimately, this film is a commentary on the dehumanizing effects of living in modern society. Will's boss Steven Jacobs (as played by David Oyelowo) is a monstrous soldier of capitalism. Will and his love interest Caroline (Frieda Pinto) are more sympathetic in their intentions, but are still so emotionally flat that I can only believe that actors of this caliber and emotional range made a conscious choice to portray them that way.
Tyler Labine evinces a little more depth as animal psychology expert Robert Franklin, but this could easily be due to his immersion in the psyches of more natural, primal beings. His limited immunity to the heart deadening conventions of civilization does not ultimately protect him, however, as he becomes the first victim when humanity's self destruction kicks into high gear.
As I said before, Will's father Charles is easily the most fully realized human character in the movie. His Alzheimer's is the inspiration for his son's research and therefore the source of Caesar's evolution. It also removes him from caring for, or understanding of, modern society's conventions. This returns him to a more human (albeit confused) way of viewing and relating to the world around him.
It is in Caesar, however, that we see the spark of true humanity. Jacobs goes in guns blazing to defend his profits. Caesar shows compassion to his enemies, time and again. He compels his "people" to behave in the same manner, even when faced with aggression and brute violence. Civilization is shown to be the "new barbarism".
On the surface, Rise of the Planet of the Apes appears to be a pointless relaunch of a tired franchise. On the contrary, it quickly reveals itself to be a full re-imagination of a classic concept, an allegory for a new age. It certainly pays homage to, and builds off of what has come before, but it emerges fully realized as a relevant, poignant portrait of today's modern world.