Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” – A rare species of intelligent blockbuster

Poster for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Spoiler warning: This review will reveal plot details that appear in the film’s trailer.

It’s easy to overlook just how smart and well-executed this film is, given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes nearly drowns in its rush to saturate itself with big-budget blockbuster stupidity. Ostensibly, this film is a prequel/reboot of the original Planet of the Apes, but it feels – with the exception of some slightly obnoxious callbacks – like a standalone film. The premise is rather similar to the film adaptation of I Am Legend. In his arrogant rush to cure a debilitating disease (in this case Alzheimers), [Dr?] Will Rodman (James Franco) develops a drug that triggers neurogenesis – the repair and creation of brand new neurons in the brain. When this drug is tested on our closest genetic relative, the chimpanzee, a slew of Unforeseen Consequences™ ensue.

The majority of the film is told from the perspective of Caesar, another brilliant simian team-up from motion-capture dynamo Andy Serkis and Peter Jackson’s team at Weta Digital. This is the same actor and effects team behind King Kong in 2005, and Gollum in Lord of the Rings before him. If there is a measuring stick that indicates where the performance ends and the effects begin, it is certainly inconclusive here. While Zoe Saldana’s Avatar alter ego at least had some emoted lines of dialogue to work with, Serkis must work almost entirely through facial expressions and miscellaneous noises. So much of Caesar’s apparent intelligence is due to his ability to simply sit and react quietly to what goes on around him. The slightest glance – the recognition that occurs when the audience gazes into the character’s green-flecked eyes – this is how Caesar conveys his inner consciousness and unmistakeable intelligence – and it is a work of absolute visual brilliance.

In addition to the facial capture, Caesar’s motion and physicality are nothing short of fantastic. The opening shot of the second act fast-forwards a few years to an extended tracking shot of Caesar swinging through Will’s house in order to follow some children playing out in the street. The shot lasts maybe 30 seconds, but it manages to convey both Caesar’s acrobatic capabilities as well as his burgeoning intellect with absolutely no dialogue or explanation. The film definitely strains its economy of dialogue at times – some brief moments of subtitled ape sign language were perhaps a bit of a stretch. But as a means of telling a coherent story in which significant portions of the screen-time are occupied by nothing but a smattering of apes – both alone and interacting with one other, it is an effective storytelling device.

In fact, I would take it a step further – the almost silent-movie story of the apes is easily the most compelling part of this film. The more talented members of the human cast are barely utilized. Brian Cox and Tom Felton appear as John and Dodge Landon, a father-son team running a primate sanctuary. Cox barely has five minutes of screentime in which to twirl his evil mustache before Felton usurps his position as ape-hater-in-chief. While it’s believable that a sociopath like Dodge might have trouble finding outside employment, it’s never entirely clear why he agrees to work at his father’s sanctuary when he clearly detests apes and everything about their care. But…sure, why not. Every good prison flick needs a sadistic screw on the cell block, and Felton proves that he can chew the scenery just as effectively without a British accent or magic wand.

Outside of Caesar’s storyline, Franco and his supporting cast are downright tedious. John Lithgow plays Will’s senile father, Charles, and gives a frankly cartoonish depiction of advanced Alzheimer’s. Equally cartoonish was Will’s next door neighbor (David Hewlett), whom we’re meant to despise because he has a problem with vicious, man-sized apes threatening his children, or senile old men trying to steal his car. Does he have some rage issues? Sure. But is he wrong?

Speaking of generic ethical subtext, Freida Pinto is a complete non-entity as Will’s love interest, seemingly present only to pose some of the more obvious bits of rhetorical dialogue about the situation: “What about Caesar?” “How does he fit into this?” “Some things are just wrong, Will!” But in spite of its boring cadre of homo sapiens, this film manages to tackle the ethics of raising a creature with near-human intelligence about as effectively (and with less lurid sensationalism) as last year’s Splice.

The film’s last act is pretty much non-stop action as the apes rampage through San Francisco. This entire sequence is brilliantly executed, both in terms of visual effects and action staging, and its more implausible elements are balanced out by a mix of effective character moments and a taut, exhilarating pace. Sure, the apes probably shouldn’t understand the importance of smashing security cameras. Sure, the military and police could probably take down an unarmed ape rebellion with relative ease. And sure, we’d probably see a lot more blood if this weren’t rated PG-13. But between the element of surprise (no one really expects a simian army wielding fence-posts) and the apes’ relatively benign intentions, they come off as surprisingly sympathetic even as they’re smashing cars and tossing cops. The whole sequence is purposeful and utterly thrilling, and left me eager to see the next chapter in this story.

Unfortunately, the next chapter is spelled out in a brief scene and infographic after the credits have rolled for a minute or so. I’ll chalk that up to the same marketing wisdom that led to the film’s nonsensical title change from the much more fitting Rise of the Apes. This additional bit of superfluous, Avengers-esque storytelling doesn’t ruin the film, but you’re probably better off leaving your seat as soon as the names start to roll.

FilmWonk rating: 7.5 out of 10