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Our review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Blu-ray), published December 28th, 2011, is also available.
Evolution becomes revolution.
"Apes alone…weak. Apes together strong."
Facts of the Case
Our human protagonist is a scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco, Your Highness), who is currently developing a drug he believes may have the capability to cure Alzheimers (not coincidentally, a disease his father—played by John Lithgow, Dexter—is suffering from). Will has been conducting trials on a female ape with immense success, but when the ape turns violent, she and the other test subjects are put down. Fueled by his guilt and humanity, Will manages to rescue the female's newborn child and take it home.
As the young ape (dubbed "Caesar" by Will's Shakespeare-loving father) begins to grow, Will witnesses a remarkable series of developments. It seems the drug administered to Caesar's mother also had an effect on the child, who is now demonstrating a level of intelligence unheard of in his species. Within a few years, Caesar can understand English, is fluent in sign language, and capable of performing a wide variety of tasks which had previously been exclusive to humans. However, after an unfortunate incident gets Caesar locked up, things take a dark and troubling turn.
Franklin J. Schaeffner's Planet of the Apes remains a slightly flawed yet immensely enjoyable science fiction classic, but the franchise doesn't exactly have a sterling reputation. The sequels are all hit-and-miss to some degree, and the less said about Tim Burton's wretched 2001 reboot the better. As such, it was hard to work up much enthusiasm for yet another attempt at bringing the property back to life, but Rupert Wyatt's awkwardly-titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be one of 2011's surprise successes.
The story we're being told in Rise of the Planet of the Apes will feel very familiar to fans of the franchise, as Wyatt's film is essentially a present-day remake of Lee J. Thompson's gritty Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. However, while that film ultimately fumbled its interesting ideas and turned into a messy unsatisfying action flick, this franchise reboot only grows stronger as it propels along and manages the not-inconsiderable feat of leaving the viewer salivating for more. In other words, what we've been given is easily the best Planet of the Apes since…well, Planet of the Apes.
Though the original ad campaign promoted the film as a James Franco vehicle, it quickly becomes apparent the perpetually-busy actor is merely here to set up the tale of Caesar the ape. Portrayed masterfully by motion-capture king Andy Serkis, Caesar is arguably one of the most effective cinematic arguments for CGI to date. When you see how masterfully the filmmakers have fused the emotion of Serkis' performance with the persuasive physical detail of the animation, odds are you'll agree this is one of the rare instances in which the modern computer-generated imagery proves vastly more enchanting than practical effects (making the idea of going back to men in monkey suits unthinkable). Amusingly, the folks at Fox finally adjusted their ad campaign, creating Serkis-centric promotional spots for the DVD and Blu-ray release which all but ignores Franco.
Caesar is unquestionably the star of the film, and manages to act circles around his human counterparts. Not that the humans are bad, mind you (in fact, Franco, Brian Cox, and John Lithgow are all rather good), but Serkis and the animators achieve a level of subtle expressiveness which is wondrous to behold. Over the course of the film, Serkis depicts Caesar at stages of life ranging from giddy child to moody teenager to embittered revolutionary, never missing a beat at any turn. In sequences which are mostly dialogue-free, we witness an origin story that deeply moves us even as it goes precisely where we expect it to go.
Though the main plot points are predictable, Rise of the Planet of the Apes keeps us involved by allowing these events to unfold in a natural, intelligently-written manner. It's not exactly a movie for Mensa members, but it's an atypically smart summer blockbuster which only slips into cheap fan service on a few brief occasions (the recycling of the famous "damn dirty apes" line is regrettably groan-worthy). However, it still manages to deliver on a more primal front, as the action sequence in the third act feels like a genuinely thrilling extension of the story rather than some obligatory noise which forces the characters to take a back seat (and the increasingly robust score by Patrick Doyle certainly adds some punch to the proceedings).
The DVD's 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer gets the job done nicely, offering deep blacks, strong detail, and impressive depth. While the detailed work of the folks at WETA Digital deserves to be seen in hi-def, those who don't own a Blu-ray player will be pleased with what this standard-def version offers. Audio is as strong as it can be under the circumstances, with the Dolby 5.1 Surround track delivering a solid mix of sound design, music, and dialogue.
Bonus features are disappointingly thin. Two enjoyable featurettes ("Mythology of the Apes" and "The Genius of Andy Serkis") offer only a taste of the behind-the-scenes material available on the Blu-ray, and all that remains are some deleted scenes and theatrical trailers. Sadly, it's more or less become routine for studios to short-change their DVD releases in the hopes of pushing people towards Blu-ray.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Like all the films in this franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has its problems. The romance between Franco and Freida Pinto (Immortals) feels like a forced subplot, the obnoxious character played by Tom Felton (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) gets too much screen time, and Lithgow's character is treated as nothing more than a plot device.
This film marks the second time a Planet of the Apes movie has left me satisfied, and the first time one has left me hungry to see what comes next. Bravo.
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Scales of Justice
• Deleted Scenes
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