CINEMA KNIFE FIGHT: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (2011)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: A large enclosed ape preserve. There are apes everywhere— chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans— all of them screeching and jumping up and down. In this middle of this clamor, stand L.L. SOARES and MICHAEL ARRUDA.)
L.L. SOARES: Well, this is another fine mess you’ve gotten us into!
MICHAEL ARRUDA: Not really. Watch! (Snaps fingers, and apes suddenly fall quiet.)
(The lead CHIMPANZEE suddenly rises, places a top hat on his head, and breaks into song, with the rest of the apes providing the chorus and background dancing. They’re performing “The Theme from THE MONKEES”)
LS: What the hell is this?
MA: It looks like a choreographed musical number to me, performed by apes. The one thing that was missing from today’s movie, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES.
MA: Well, the movie needed something to make it better, why not a musical number?
LS: We don’t do musical numbers here at Cinema Knife Fight. (shouts) Enough! (Apes fall silent, then glare at LS.)
MA: You guys can perform after we’re done with the column, and L.L. here leaves the set, how about that?
(Apes nod in approval.)
MA: On that note— heh, heh— let’s get this column started.
LS: Remember, no singing until I’m gone.
(A banana hits LS in the head.)
MA: I don’t think they like you.
LS: But if you want to skip the singing, there’s free beer back at my place afterwards.
(A banana hits MA in the head.)
MA: Always stealing the attention.
LS: I’m a writer. That’s my job.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a re-imagining of the origin story to the PLANET OF THE APES franchise, which told the story of a world where humans had destroyed themselves, and apes had evolved to become the dominant species here on Earth.
LS: RISE is especially similar to CONQUEST OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (1972), the fourth film of the original movie series, which also told the story of the rise of the apes as the dominant species on Earth, although CONQUEST was very different, to such a degree that I would not call RISE a remake. In that one, Caesar (Roddy McDowell) is an intelligent ape from the future who leads a revolt of normal apes in our world who are used as servants. It’s actually a very strange premise.
MA: In RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, these events are set into motion because of a drug.
LS: Which actually makes a lot more sense.
MA: Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a new drug to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and he’s driven in this quest because his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease. Naturally, they test the drugs on chimpanzees first, and one of the tested chimps is pregnant. Rodman and his scientists don’t know this, which I find surprising.
LS: Me, too. How could these scientist types not notice that??
MA: She gives birth to Caesar, a cute little baby chimp who Will takes home with him because once the experiment is deemed a failure, Will’s boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) orders all the chimps to be put down.
So, Will takes Caesar home where he discovers that because of the drug that was in his mother’s system, Caesar is one incredibly smart chimp. Caesar becomes good friends with Will’s father, Charles, Will becomes good friends (with benefits!) with a beautiful veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), and all is right with the world until Caesar attacks their pain-in-the-ass neighbor, a man who’d been threatening Charles, and so Caesar had actually done a good thing, but the authorities don’t see it that way and Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an ape preserve run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton).
Dodge Landon is a jerk who likes to mistreat the apes, but Caesar hardly minds, because it is at this time that he befriends his own kind and develops into their leader. He manages to escape from the ape house, break into his old home, and steal some of the drug that gave him his intelligence. This drug is now in canisters that provide a convenient mist, like an old fashioned flea bomb, and Caesar uses this mist to empower his fellow apes with super intelligence.
The apes then break loose, wreaking havoc on San Francisco, as they make their way to what Caesar sees as their new home, the forest of giant red wood trees. The authorities of course try to stop them, and Will tries to save them, and all of this comes to a head on the Golden Gate Bridge in the film’s climactic battle.
LS: Are you done yet? These apes are really thirsty for beer.
(APES wake up from sleeping to applaud)
MA: Funny, but I’m still clocking in at about half the time as one of your exhaustive plot summaries!
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a movie dominated by its ape special effects. The apes here look phenomenal, and they are by far the main reason to see this movie. The rest of the movie? Not so much. I thought the characters were all rather standard and not that exciting, and the story nothing to brag about.
LS: I think the apes look phenomenal some of the time. But it’s a real tight rope act. There are scenes early on when Caesar is a kid monkey and he’s jumping all around and it’s so friggin obvious that it’s a cartoon, that I almost forgot I was watching a live-action drama for a moment. So is the CGI flawless and amazing? No. Is it amazing some of the time? Sure.
As for the characters, I didn’t think the humans were all that exciting, but I do like James Franco a lot and he was fine in the role of Dr. Rodman. The ape characters are the ones that are interesting here and several of them have distinct personalities, and that doesn’t even include Caesar, who is the main attraction here. In the preserve, there is a cool circus orangutan who can communicate with Caesar via sign language named Maurice (a tip of the hat to Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zaius in the original PLANET OF THE APES movie), a fierce gorilla named Buck, and a muscular chimp who challenges Caesar for dominance when he first comes to the preserve, but who eventually comes to accept Caesar as the Alpha chimp.
MA: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES also takes forever to get started. Unlike COWBOYS & ALIENS, a movie that hooked me with its opening scene, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES starts slowly and really doesn’t hit its stride until half way through the movie, when Caesar begins to ask questions about himself, like “Am I a pet?” as he wonders who and what he is. Caesar is the one character in the movie who is fully developed, and when he leads the apes to freedom, you understand exactly why he’s doing it.
LS: Just a note that for most of the movie, when Caesar “talks,” it is through sign language, which Dr. Rodman has taught him from an early age. However, there is a rather surprising scene later in the film where that changes, and it’s quite powerful.
I thought Caesar was so good that he was able to carry the movie on his simian shoulders, and keep me glued to the screen. I actually found the storyline in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES to be quite compelling and didn’t think it moved slow at all. It wasn’t an action-packed shoot-em-up like COWBOYS & ALIENS, but it wasn’t supposed to be. RISE is a more thoughtful movie. And I thought it worked just fine.
MA: That’s all well and good, except it didn’t give us much to think about. Those scenes early on with Caesar at home with Will and his dad Charles are tortuously slow. The only thing I was thinking about during these scenes was how come there wasn’t enough butter on my popcorn? We all know that the title of this flick wasn’t APES AT HOME, and so at some point Caesar is going to be somewhere else, and it just takes so friggin long for this to happen. Meanwhile, we’re left thinking about: does Charles beat his Alzheimer’s? Does Caroline sleep with Will? And how about those red woods? Mighty tall. I didn’t find this story compelling at all, especially early on.
For me, the best part of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, and the main reason to see this one, are the apes. These are CGI effects, specifically something called “performance-capture,” where an actor performs the role, his motions and expressions are recorded, and then computer animation is digitally placed “on top” of the actor’s performance, creating a CGI character that is far more life-like than anything created by straight animation. Andy Serkis, the actor who “performed” as King Kong in Peter Jackson’s KING KONG remake (2005) is also on hand here performing as Caesar.
LS: Serkis was also Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS movies, and he’s really quite good in these kinds of roles. I’m not sure how much of the characters are Serkis and how much are animation, but he’s some kind of master at making these kinds of creatures seem real.
(There is a commotion and the gates open. A chimp in a Hawaiian shirt and sunglasses enters the room, followed by reporters snapping pictures. It’s BUBBLES, who was once the pet of Michael Jackson)
BUBBLES: Hey there, babes. I told you I’d be stopping by.
(The rest of the apes cheer)
BUBBLES: Party at the Neverland Ranch later on tonight. I got the Ferris Wheel working and everything. And banana daiquiris for everyone.
LS: Can we come, too?
BUBBLES: Sorry, no humans allowed at this bash, baby. Maybe next time.
(APES cheer again, and BUBBLES leaves, followed by the flashbulbs and reporters)
MA: That was surreal.
LS: That guy’s a rock star in the ape world.
MA: Well, back to our review. The apes look amazing and do not disappoint. Yes, they are more realistic looking than the actors in make-up in the original PLANET OF THE APES series, but having grown up with that series, I still have a soft spot for the tremendous make-up used in those movies. Also, the look of the apes in the original series made perfect sense, since those apes supposedly had evolved into intelligent beings over thousands of years, and so it stood to reason that they might look more human. Here, in RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, these apes have not evolved, and so it makes sense that they look more like real apes.
LS: I wonder if we’ll see a sequel that takes place in the future and if the apes will have evolved into more human-like creatures, or if they’ll stay the same. I have a soft spot for the make-up created characters of the original PLANET OF THE APES films too, and I miss those effects here. Sure, the CGI is top-notch here for the most part, but the original APES just seemed more – er – human. And I’ll never forget Roddy McDowall, the king of the original apes, who played both Caesar and Cornelius in the original series. He will always be synonymous with PLANET OF THE APES to me, no matter how good CGI gets.
MA: Yes, McDowall was excellent, and he’s my favorite part of the original APES series as well.
In RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the apes are great, but the humans are not. The characters in this one are all largely forgettable.
James Franco’s main character, scientist Will Rodman, is rather dull and boring, as is his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto). If the apes weren’t in this movie, you certainly wouldn’t want to pay money to see a story about these two.
LS: I don’t think they’re very dynamic characters, but I found them likable enough, and they were there to move the story forward, especially Rodman. It was clear from his first appearance in the film that this was Caesar’s movie, so the human characters certainly weren’t going to overshadow him.
MA: John Lithgow and Brian Cox are both wasted in small roles that don’t give them a whole lot to do. Lithgow fares better as an Alzheimer’s sufferer, and he’s good in these scenes, but the film isn’t about him and doesn’t spend much time on him, which is too bad because he would have been more interesting to watch than Franco’s Will Rodman. Brian Cox’s role could have been played by Brian Doyle-Murray. There’s nothing to it. I’m surprised Cox took the role.
LS: Hey, I like Brian Doyle-Murray, he was great as Gus on that old Chris Elliot show GET A LIFE (1990 – 1992)!
(The R.E.M. song “Stand” starts playing over the loudspeakers above them)
MA: I like Brian Doyle-Murray too. My point is you don’t need Brian Cox playing this role.
LS: But seriously, Lithgow is fine, and there certainly could have been an alternate movie where Rodman experiments on his father with the Alzheimer’s drug – kind of a riff on the movie CHARLY (1968). As is, this storyline is addressed but isn’t given a lot of screen time, like you said. But it worked for me as an interesting subplot. And I liked Brian Cox, what little we see of him.
MA: Yep, he’s impossible not to watch, as he delivers such compelling lines as “Come on in,” and “It’s time for you to leave.” Fascinating stuff. It’s a waste of a role!
Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER movies) probably fares the best as the villainous Dodge Landon, but Landon is a jerk, not a villain, and so he’s not really fun to watch. He’s a pain in the ass.
LS: I liked Felton just fine. He played a very good jerk.
MA: The real villain should have been Steven Jacobs (David Oyelow) but he’s really not all that villainous in the movie, and is another wasted character. Sure, he’s the one who gives the order early on to put down the chimps, but the film does a lousy job reminding us of this fact, and during the film’s climactic confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge, Jacobs is in a helicopter firing at the apes with a machine gun, but since we hardly know this character, we don’t really know why he’s so hell-bent on destroying the apes.
LS: Jacobs isn’t really a villain, he’s just some greedy guy who wants to make as much money as he can from the drug Rodman is working on, and who wants to avoid “problems” like the apes going rogue, at all costs, because it hurts his profit margin.
MA: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is also hampered by its trailers, trailers I enjoyed, by the way. The problem is it’s another example where a trailer completely gives away the movie. There are lots of cool scenes in this movie. Too bad I had already seen them in the trailers! So, if you haven’t seen the trailers, you might like this movie better than I did. The trailers practically show the entire background story and the scenes of the apes on the loose, and so as a movie viewer I hoped that there would still be more of this story to be told, but the sad fact is, the apes don’t escape till the end of this movie, and so there’s not much happening beyond what we’ve seen in the trailers.
LS: I agree with you there. I reviewed the trailer last week in my “Trashing Trailers” column, and I thought it was good, but wasn’t sure what direction the movie would take. The funny thing is, I could have written most of my review of the movie based on the trailer. The story is just about all there. And I agree – I really hate when trailers do that. I want to be surprised! Unfortunately, that’s a very rare occurrence in movies these days.
MA: There are some lines that pay homage to the original APES series, including my favorite line of all time from the series, “It’s a madhouse!!!” (though Charlton Heston still says it better in the original.)
LS: And don’t forget when someone says “Get your hand off me, you damn dirty ape!”
(A big purple face peeks out from behind a rock formation)
PURPRLE APE: Grape Ape!
MA: Oh no, it’s that stupid giant gorilla GRAPE APE from that Saturday morning cartoon in the 70s.
LS: I don’t think you should be insulting a gorilla in a preserve full of apes.
PURPLE APE: Grape Ape!
LS: I always wondered about that. Why did Grape Ape constantly say his name over and over? He didn’t sound very smart.
PURPLE APE: Grape Ape!
LS: What a moron! Get out of here!
(GRAPE APE says his name one more time, very sadly, and then leaves)
MA: There are also some interesting names. The character Dodge Landon gets his name from the two astronauts Dodge and Landon who were shipwrecked with fellow astronaut Taylor (Charlton Heston) in the original PLANET OF THE APES (1968) movie. Caesar’s mother is nicknamed “Bright Eyes,” the same nickname given to Taylor by the chimp ZIra in PLANET OF THE APES. As you already pointed out, the orangutan in this one is named Maurice, in honor of Maurice Evans, the actor who played the orangutan Dr. Zaius in PLANET OF THE APES, and the villain’s name here is Steven Jacobs, and the producer of the original APES series was Arthur P. Jacobs.
LS: I kept hoping someone named Lancelot Link would show up, but no such luck. No sign of Bubbles or Bonzo, either!
But there is a scene where someone is watching a Charlton Heston movie on television!
MA: Really? I missed that.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a mixed bag, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed with this movie. I expected better. There wasn’t much of a story and the human characters are about as exciting as a bunch of bananas. Still, the apes are the reason to see RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. The special effects are top-notch and make this one worth a look, in spite of its shortcomings.
I give it two and a half knives.
LS: I liked this movie a lot more than you did. I think part of it is that I am a huge fan of the original films and was completely horrified by the truly awful remake Tim Burton made of PLANET OF THE APES in 2001. To be honest, I thought Burton’s monstrosity had killed the franchise forever. Luckily, I was wrong. I’m excited that the PLANET OF THE APES series has been given new life and I think that compared to Burton’s film, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is pretty terrific.
MA: I’m a huge fan of the original series too, and like you, I hated the Tim Burton remake. And while I agree that RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a much better movie than Burton’s film, it’s no instant classic. I think it compares favorably to the original APES series as a whole, but it’s nowhere near as good as the original film in the series, PLANET OF THE APES.
Last summer, we reviewed PREDATORS, a film I really liked. That movie not only re-imagined the PREDATOR series, but on its own may have been the best film in the franchise! RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES falls short of this mark.
LS: Yeah, but the first PLANET OF THE APES is a much better movie than the first PREDATOR movie.
MA: Okay, I’ll accept that.
LS: On its own merits, I liked the storyline, most of the CGI effects, and especially Andy Serkis as Caesar. I don’t think it’s a great film, or even in the same league as those terrific PLANET OF THE APES films of the 1960s and 70s, but it didn’t disappoint me. It was actually as good as I thought it could be. I really enjoyed RISE and found the story of Caesar’s ascension to be quite compelling. And while you compared it negatively against COWBOYS & ALIENS, I actually thought RISE was the better movie, because it was more thoughtful.
MA: I liked COWBOYS AND ALIENS much better than RISE. I thought the characters in COWBOYS & ALIENS were much more interesting, and the acting much better. Daniel Craig’s performance alone was better than anyone in RISE.
LS: I think it loses its way a bit toward the end, but not enough to ruin the movie for me. And I thought it was a respectful, well-made film, that’s considerate of the legacy of the early films (something Tim Burton seemed to disregard completely when he attempted to remake the series in his own image – badly!).
I give it three and a half knives.
MA: Well, I guess we’re done here. I think it’s feeding time anyway.
(The CHIMP in the top hat suddenly stands up and approaches them)
CHIMP: Where are you guys rushing off to? I thought the chubby one here invited us over to his place for beers.
LS: Heh, heh. Did I do that?
MA: Yeah, I’m afraid you did.
LS: I thought you were all going over to Michael Jackson’s ranch for Bubbles’ party.
CHIMP (looks at watch): That’s not for a while yet. We got time to kill. And we want that beer.
(The other APES cheer!)
LS: Well, on second thought, I don’t know if I have enough room or beer for all of you guys.
GORILLA: He lied to us!
BABOON: I knew it! Never trust a human!
ORANGUTAN: Damn dirty humans!
CHIMP: Well, you know what that means.
CHIMP: Yes. Hit it, Corny!
(Music begins and the APES break into a musical number)
MA: You know, these apes really aren’t that bad. They can really carry a tune!
LS: Yuck. I’m gonna sneak out of the back way.
© Copyright 2011 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES ~ two and a half knives!
LL Soares gives RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES ~three and a half knives.