Rise of the Planet of the Apes
When I first saw Planet of the Apes, I was struck by the bleak tone given it by director Franklin J. Schaffner, which seemed to fit the story of astronauts trapped on a world that ultimately proved to be Earth. I was stunned into silence, feeling morose and excited by the adventure right down to the slow reveal at the end.
Ever since, I have always felt the sequels and remakes totally missed the mark, none of them ever quire finding a vision to match the original. It’s probably one reason it has continued to endure long after most people put the Tim Burton remake out of their minds.
The sense of style and empty future evoked by the first film is also absent in the prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which came out on DVD this week. This film, directed by Rupert Wyatt, does a very good job in setting events in motion that ultimately will lead man and simian to virtually switch places atop the food chain. We have a pharmaceutical company exploring a therapy for Alzheimer’s patients that seems to show promising results in improving cognitive function. The brilliant scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) wants to test it on humans, but a convenient accident so angers the Board that they shut down the project. As a result, he secretly tests it on his father (John Lithgow), deep in the Alzheimer’s grip. No surprise here: it works.
The accident results in the first of the movie’s many story flaws. Apparently, they were testing the drug on a monkey that was pregnant but no one knew it. Sorry, you do drug tests after doing full medical histories to develop a baseline measure. But, she dies and only then is the infant found and surreptitiously brought home.
The serum in mom’s blood meant the baby chimp, named Caesar, inherited these vastly improved mental abilities. We then watch the chimp grow and demonstrate time and again how special and seemingly human he is. Along the way, Lithgow and Caesar come to love one another much as Franco falls for vet Frieda Pinto. Unfortunately, we learn that Lithgow’s body had developed antibodies, combating the serum and letting the disease ravage his body anew. The problems develop when the arrogant neighbor next door attacks a befuddled Lithgow and Caesar comes to his rescue only to wind up taken away by the courts and is taken to a primate facility which reminded me a lot of Lord of the Flies.
Franco’s right hand man is exposed to the latest version of the serum and gets so sick that he eventually dies, but no one seems to notice. Well, the audience watches the slow spread of the disease that will eventually doom mankind but the remainder of the cast does nothing about it. Franklin (Tyler Labine) is only here to die while the script gives Pinto absolutely nothing to do and you wonder why she’s in the film at all.
The movie’s strength is all about Caesar, brilliantly performed for motion capture by Andy Serkis, clearly the master of the form (and seen currently in TinTin). Watching the slow rise of Caesar as the leader, even after the other apes get their minds enhanced, is the core of the film. Most of the humans are cardboard, underdeveloped characters and get short shrift from the screenwriting and production team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver.
The film works fairly well and could have worked far better had they serviced the humans as well as they did Caesar. There’s a sequel to the prequel in the works so they get a chance to do better.
The DVD sent for review looks pretty terrific and sounds fine. There are tons more extras on the Blu-ray edition but standard DVD users get commentary, two deleted scenes, and a feature on Serkis. “Mythology of the Planet of the Apes” puts the prequel into context and honors the other Apes films, all from 20th Century-Fox.
Entertaining while deeply flawed, the movie is for fans of the franchise and few others.