Unreal Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

If you were to tell me in January that my favorite film of the year by August was going to be the Planet of the Apes prequel, I probably would have laughed in your face. But today, when I am in fact declaring that to be true, it is probably you who will laugh in mine.

Trust me, I’m as surprised as you are. James Franco, CGI monkeys and a film series that died about three sequels ago should in no way combine to form a movie as supremely well done as this one. But through some sort of sorcery, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the most fun I’ve had in a theater since probably Avatar, and both films have a bit in common.

They each rely on a decidedly non-human cast to be the stars of the film. Yes, both have real life actors, but the real stars of the show are the CGI creations, be they aliens or apes. But with both films, the technology has progressed to the point where the actors in the mo-cap suits can actually be seen through the animation, and at long last are able to convey real emotion, despite being entirely digital constructs.

I thought Caesar’s CGI was questionable in his earlier years, but once he matures it’s absolutely incredible.

Our hero is Caesar, an ape gifted with exceptional intelligence due to his surrogate father’s work on an experimental drug meant to cure Alzheimers. James Franco plays the wunderkind Will Rodman, and when his experiment is shut down by his pharmaceutical company for being too dangerous, he sneaks the baby Caesar out and raises him, noting his exceptional IQ as he grows older

Caesar can sign far more words than any chimp ever trained to do so. He paints complex pictures and solves any intelligence test with ease. He bonds with Will’s Alzheimer stricken father (Jon Lithgow) and his eventual girlfriend and veterinarian Caroline (Freida Pinto). But when a misunderstanding causes Caesar to get violent with one of the neighbors in defense of his adoptive family, he’s carted off to an abusive monkey sanctuary while Will redoubles his efforts to find a new, stronger version of his cure which has profound effects on apes, but quite different results for humans.

Caesar is not merely some CGI puppet. He’s a full fledged actor through the help of mo-cap god Andy Serkis (Gollum, King Kong) whose every move and expression is relayed through the expert facial capture technology we first saw in Avatar. His other ape pals have similar actors behind them, and the combination of human acting ability with the endless study of real life apes to get every mannerism and muscle group down is simply stunning. Yes, you know they’re CGI, but the tech is so immersive, the majority of the time you’ll forget that fact.

I had surprisingly no problems with Franco, despite the fact that the casting sounded odd when first announced.

Rise of the Apes succeeds because it takes a concept that would seem to be absolutely silly on the surface, intelligent apes taking over the planet, and weaves it into a cohesive story that almost seems…believable. For those who scoff at the action-filled trailer saying “yeah right, like every lab and zoo ape in America could team up and overthrow the country,” that isn’t what happens, and the explanation given for humanity’s ultimate demise is more satisfying and reasonable than that. Well, reasonable as far as apocalypses go.

The film doesn’t forget it’s supposed to be a prequel either. Though there have been fundamental plot changes from the original (nothing nuclear to see here for example), there are a great many callbacks to the original film, from lines of dialogue (abusive ape handler Tom Felton emphatically commenting on the cleanliness of the apes) or little news snippets showing a space mission to Mars gone wrong.

But the best part of the film bar none is watching Ceasar’s journey and transformation. It’s intellectual yes, as he learns new skills and becomes smarter with each passing day, but it’s also emotional as he’s abused by humans and abandoned by his former friend. The ape rebellion he ends up leading results in a bunch of exceptionally satisfying moments that practically want to make you stand up and cheer. A few people in my audience actually did and I felt myself getting choked up during a few profound moments. Over CGI apes! It’s clear we truly have reached a tipping point with special effects that they’re able to draw out that kind of reaction, and that’s why the film succeeds.

I didn’t expect how much I’d be rooting for the apes.

The film does start out slow, and if you’re looking for a giant ape carnage fest, that’s not what you’ll find. But the slow build up is necessary to develop Caesar and the overall plot, and the payoff when the action finally does start is well worth the wait.Caesar’s rise to power is as much fun as the kind of hilarious/kind of spectacular ape fight sequences, and the action is doled out in appropriate doses that allow the characters to actually shine. And I’m talking about the apes, not the humans, who are almost out-acted by their CGI primate counterparts.

Quite simply, it’s hard to top Rise of the Apes‘ entertainment value, and I left the theater feeling a rush that I rarely get from movies anymore, and certainly not from any this year. As ridiculous as you might think it to be, give these apes a chance and I’m willing to bet they’ll surprise you.

5 out of 5 stars

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  1. Great review. I knew I loved the movie in the scene where Caesar gets jumped by the other monkeys in the sanctuary. I was legitimately upset an concerned for him even though I knew it was CGI.

  2. you really had me interested until you mentioned avatar, one of, if not THE, most boring and overrated films ever.

    i wasnt interested in Planet of the Apes, but I usually have similar interests with you, so I thought that maybe I would check it out, but comparing it to Avatar? not even sure if I’ll netflix it now.

    1. It was compared to Avatar only in the sense that both films primarily feature CGI-generated actors.

      But that comparison alone is enough to make you not see it.

      Either you missed the point of the comparison, or James Cameron banged your mom.

  3. Saw it last night, I think what got me was the feeling that something big was happening though out the movie. There was weight to each scene and choice that the characters made, especially Cesar.
    All and all an amazing movie.

  4. @ steve p
    I am totally with you on Avatar. But you totally missed the point of that reference. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, while having a really stupid title, is a great movie that sticks with you long after you see it and really majesty you think. Great review Paul.

  5. Completely agree with what you said. Loved the review, loved the movie. The only thing that kept bugging me is you continually called them monkeys! There was not a single monkey in that movie, because monkeys have tails!

  6. i got the part about them both being heavily CGI, the part of the comparison i didn’t like and turned me off to this movie was…

    “Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the most fun I’ve had in a theater since probably Avatar”

    to me that just screams boring. seeing as i had ZERO fun watching avatar, it leads me to believe this will be just as boring. avatar was so dull and overrated. even the whole CG thing. i didnt see it in theaters, but i have a pretty nice home set up, and it still seemed “meh” to me.

    or maybe im taking “fun” the wrong way (but i dont think so since he 5 starred this one). When i think of a “fun” movie, i think of something that isn’t really good per se, but its enjoyable. something like transformers or saw or final destination, or what really comes to mind for me is scott pilgrim vs the world. the plot was kinda dumb, acting not so great, definitely wont win an oscar, but it was just a fun movie.

    I really liked Captain America (as of now, calling early best movie of the year, I’d probably go Cap or maybe X-men First Class), but i wouldn’t call it “fun”. not that i didn’t have fun, i definitely did, but i tend to use “fun” as i mentioned above.

    so either way if “most fun i’ve had” means “it looked cool visually” or “it was a great fucking movie”, comparing it to avatar kills it for me.

  7. @steve p: You’re seriously comparing your home entertainment set up to a full fledge Imax 3D theatre? I feel sorry for you that you had zero fun watching Avatar. The “pretty nice set up” probably didn’t have anything to do with it. Oscar’s being mentioned in the same sentence with Scott Pilgrim (abeit not winning one, but still) showed me how much your value of fun is very different from mine and Madison’s.

    Rise of the Apes (as I prefer to call it) is definitely my favorite movie this year..so far.

    @Madison: either you or Nate should write an article about the best 2011 films thus far.

    Mine is:
    1. ROTA
    2. Super 8
    3. X-men: First Class
    4. Captain America
    5. Source Code

    Can’t wait for Tree of Life to be released to the public.

    1. I unfortunately don’t write here anymore, but maybe I’ll do a guest post at the end of the year on my top 10 movies.

      Your opinion may differ, but no way is Tree of Life in my top 10. I was very, very disappointed by that movie.

  8. no, not comparing to a “full fledged imax 3d”, just to a regular theater. i hate 3D, so i just took that out of the equation. and no im not saying my home theater is better than a real theater, but regardless i still wasnt overly impressed. was the CGI/special effects good? hells yes. but not to the point where i “got depressed because i couldnt visit the lush world of pandora” like so many else.

    either way, thats besides the point, beautiful visuals does not a good movie make. so yes, pretty nice set up vs full fledge imax 3D had nothing to do with having no fun watching it. it was a boring predictable movie.

    and i think our “value” of fun may be similar based on your top 5 (i pretty much agree with it), but for some reason i tend to use the term for movies that were entertaining, but not quite good enough to be really called good.

    again, i had loads of fun watching captain america, but when my friends asked what i thought i said it was “amazing”, not “fun”.

  9. My best friend has gone to school for film and it seems that he hates every movie that comes out now a days because he analyzes it through the eyes of a film critic. I’ve had to break my catagories down into good movies, ones that are actually quality films, and cool movies, where they’re like a roller coaster. not a lot of substance but you enjoy the experience. Now this movie is quite honestly the best movie I’ve seen in quite some time. I really can’t think of any that I’ve seen lately that really compare. I think the last one I saw that I really enjoyed this much was The King’s Speech. And before that Inception. But I really think I liked this one better than The King’s Speech because of what it was. I mean I don’t think I’ve ever been in a theatre where something so shocking happens that no one makes a sound and this movie had that. I’ve seen it once and now I’m just trying to find people that haven’t seen it so I can go again. If this movie doesn’t get nominated for best picture, and I won’t be shocked if it doesn’t happen, but if it doesn’t I will be amazed.

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