A movie that opens as well as this one does—and draws you in so effectively—ought to have a finale that doesn’t remind you of cheesy monster movies from years past. On the other hand, the visual effects in Rise of the Planet of the Apes are so astonishing that I have to cut the movie some slack.
Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s screenplay starts out on a strong note, as we meet genetic researcher James Franco, who is experimenting with a drug that may help victims of Alzheimer’s Disease—like his own father, nicely played by John Lithgow. Ultimately, Franco rescues a baby chimpanzee from the lab and raises it as a member of his family, but veterinarian Freida Pinto warns him that Caesar won’t be a playful young chimp very long. This is an eventuality Franco isn’t willing to face, but moviegoers will immediately recognize as—
—foreshadowing of dark events to come.
As the story continues it veers more and more into B-movie territory, introducing such familiar character types as an unfeeling animal caretaker (played by Brian Cox, who starred in director Rupert Wyatt’s little-seen 2008 prison film The Escapist) and his mean-spirited son (played by Tom Felton, known far and wide as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies). With people like that around, and Franco’s money-driven boss (David Oyelowo), it’s clear where the movie is heading…perhaps a bit too clear.
Knowing references to the 1968 version of Planet of the Apes abound, some more obvious than others. Fun is fun, but it’s easy to forget the impact that movie had back then—especially after it was parodied so memorably by The Simpsons. It was not only a huge hit, it was one of the most talked-about films of its time—with a twist ending that audiences didn’t foresee. It was based on a novel by Pierre Boulle, and adapted by two of the most esteemed writers of the time, Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. John Chambers’ makeup may seem quaint alongside the performance-capture technique that enables Andy Serkis to bring Caesar to life, but it was unprecedented, and amazing to behold.
If this film is remembered, it won’t be for its storyline, which reverts to cliché a bit too often as it approaches its climax, but for its eye-popping integration of live-action and movie magic. Just as the geniuses at Peter Jacksons’ Weta Digital in New Zealand made us believe that the aliens were real and actually interacting with humans in District 9, they pull off an even more ambitious agenda here using a process they invented for Avatar. The effects are phenomenal, and pretty much invisible. Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems to say that anything is possible, even creating a horde of simian creatures from thin air and having them run riot through San Francisco.
That said, I wish I liked the ending better—not just the destruction that leads up to it, but the actual story resolution. Like some other summer movies, the last scene seems to be little more than a set-up for a sequel. Shouldn’t a big picture like this have a real, satisfying finish as well as an open door for a followup?