Once upon a time there was a genuine classic of a movie that pressed all the right buttons in the fear department, Planet of the Apes. Since that original 1968 version a lot of attempts have been made at reproducing the success, but between lackluster sequels and a weird display from Tim Burton nothing managed to come close. Now, more than four decades later, we have ourselves the latest candidate, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Its draw-cards? Attempting to be original through the telling of the story that predated Charlton Heston, the story of how the apes overthrew humanity as the planet’s dominant species. That, plus the use of modern production values with modern computer generated special effects and motion capture technology. The good old question is still the same: does the new movie cut the mustard?
We start by following Will (James Franco), a doctor experimenting on chimps in order to concoct the cure for Alzheimer. He’s a person of ethics, and when things go wrong and a corporate decision is made to terminate all lab apes Will smuggles a baby chimp home. Quickly, through the aid of a quick montage, we realize the lab environment did baby chimp well: he’s very smart by all account. Will’s Alzheimer suffering father (John Lithgow), who shares the home, names the baby Caesar.
Ceasar’s wisdom coupled with his father's deterioration convinces Will to ignore ethics and give his father a dose of ape medicine. It works: the next morning the father is playing the piano like he was Beethoven. However, as one can expect, there is plenty of room for things to go wrong: a chimp surrounded by humans is still an alien no matter how smart he is, and drugs do have their side effects. Eventually Caesar will have to fend for himself, and in the process fend for the rest of the apes; this will lead to the alleged rise of the apes, of which we will no doubt be told in future sequels.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes uses familiar formulas to present its case with. It regularly evokes images from the classic Planet of the Apes series, and it regularly refers to events that took place there (e.g., the mere use of the name Caesar, or references to a space mission gone lost). The film also plays all the familiar notes in the plot development department, starting from the well meaning scientist that ends up creating devastation and moving through to the rise of an unlikely hero. There is nothing new in anything on offer by Rise of Planet of the Apes; that said, it all works well enough to create a cohesive, entertaining and often thrilling experience.
Thus we come to the point of the portrayal of the film’s apes. Apparently, these were mostly done via human, motion tracking, suit wearing actors on whom ape features were later superimposed through a computer. In particular, Andy “Gollum” Serkis is back to doing the thing that won him his fame in the role of Caesar. Once again this triggers the question of whether he’s entitled to be referred to as any of the “proper” actors in the cast. John Scalzi presented the case for regarding his the same way we regard Franco’s performance (see here); personally, having watched the supplementals detailing how his work was done, I do have my doubts. In principle, I see no reason to discriminate the digital from the physical; however, before/after comparisons seem to indicate to this illiterate blogger that Serkis’ main value has been in helping the actors around him relate to his performance and act accordingly rather than his performance on its own. It seems to me that the digital retrofitting kills most of Serkis’ own nuances in the process. Still, I have no doubt we are only a decade or so away from entirely virtual stars; the main thing holding Hollywood back there is probably the marketing value of real star power.
Best scene: The show down on the Golden Gate Bridge, of course.
Technical assessment: As I mentioned in my previous review, I will withhold technical reviewing for now. What I did want to mention here is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes has been the first film we got to watch on our new cheap yet big TV. We watched it while the TV was only half way through calibration, and it showed. So if there is anything you need to take from my account it is the value of properly calibrating your TV (properly = doing so through the use of reference material rather than the personal taste of your eyes).
Overall: Nothing new under the sun, yet it has to be said the end result is not bad at all. 3 out of 5 stars.