Choosing a good title for your movie is relatively important. An interesting, catchy or cool sounding title can draw attention and really help to market the final product. When you are dealing with a reboot of a long franchise this is less of an issue because they can bank on the recognizably and popularity of the original. Still, “The Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is probably the most awkward, lazy excuse for a title I have seen in years. It does not roll of the tongue like a good title should. If you can’t be bothered to work out a good title for your project, can you really be expected to give it enough love and attention for it to succeed?
Apparently you can. Despite an awful title, “The Rise” is actually quite a decent film. For one, it has nothing to do with the 2001 cinematic abortion committed by Tim Burton.
In some of his public statements, director Rupert Wyatt made it very clear that his project is not to be considered to be a prequel to the “Ape Lincoln” fiasco, nor a remake of the 1972 “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”. It is a clean reboot, much in the way “Batman Begins” restarted the dying DC franchise. Essentially he wanted it to be what Tim Burton’s remake was supposed to be.
And you know what? Wyatt delivers where Burton failed. The one good thing about the previous remake was the makeup work. I really loved seeing Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Clarke Duncan and Paul Giamatti run around the screen in their ape costumes. Unfortunately this was the only thing in the movie that I actually enjoyed. “The Rise” does not have the star power of it’s deeply flawed predecessor but it makes up for it with a decent plot and a very good character development arc for the protagonist. And no, I don’t mean James Franko’s Will Rodman. I mean’t Caesar, the ape.
You see, Wyatt did something very risky and unorthodox. He centered his movie around a motion captured character – a CGI generated ape. A conventional, and expected choice would be to build your narrative around relateable human characters and push the computer generated persona to the side, in case it turns out to be too artificial, or too creepy. Wyatt did the exact opposite. James Franko, Frieda Pinto and John Lithgow get the first billing on the poster, but the real star of the movie is Andy Serkis who did all the motion capture work for Caesar. The humans play an important role in the story, but first and foremost it is a story about an ape. It’s not “A Boy and his X” movie, mind you – it is a story about an ape his boy.
Rupert Wyatt deserves kudos for choosing this path. It’s not often you see a CGI generated character steal the spotlight from real flesh and blood actors but this is exactly what happens in “The Rise”. The mute ape’s story ark is moving, interesting and compelling. Andy Sekis’ motion captured mannerisms and facial expression work make Caesar seem real and alive. In fact, he is the only character with any kind of development and dynamism. We see him grow up from a silly little monkey that is more like a cuddly pet, to a powerful mature leader and mentor to his people (his apes?). It is wonderfully realized, well executed and at times deeply moving story.
Of course the movie is not without flaws. James Franco’s performance is relatively competent, but at times he seems to have trouble committing emotionally. There is one particular scene that should have been particularly devastating to his character, but to me it seemed a bit phoned in. Of course this could be a problem with direction – perhaps Wyatt did not want to steal the thunder away from Caesar and downplayed the other key events significantly.
Frieda Pinto who plays the only named adult female in the movie has absolutely nothing to do, but smile and look pretty in the background. Her role is to be the love interest and nothing else. We never see her develop any kind of relationship with the father, or the ape protagonist, and she is never actually seen on screen unless she is being escorted by one of her male counterparts. It’s pretty much a textbook example of how not to write female characters.
And of course there is the Uncanny Valley effect. I mentioned this in my Tron: Legacy review but it bears repeating. Our current motion capture and character generation technology is very, very close to absolute photo-realism. But it is not there yet. Our CGI characters are nearly perfect, but there is always something subtly off about them. This short circuits our suspension of disbelief, and makes them look creepy. We have no problems pretending that cutesy cartooney characters are real, but photo realistic CGI generated apes are just weird.
For some reason Wyatt decided not to use any real life primates in his movie. I can understand why he chose mo-cap technology for Caesar with his human-like intellect and mannerisms, but there is a whole truck load of real apes in the movie that are supposed to act naturally. Unfortunately they don’t look or behave like real life animals, so watching them is quite off-putting. It gets a little better once they all get smartened up, because at least then they have an excuse for their strange un-ape like behavior.
If you can get past that though, definitely check out this movie. If nothing else, just to see real actors being completely upstaged by a mo-cap ape despite Uncanny Valley effect being in full bloom. The story is surprisingly good, the ape uprising scenes are a lot of fun to watch, and the movie sets a lot of thing in motion for possible sequels. It is very possible that this is not the last we have seen of Ceasar and his ape army, and I actually do not have any problem with that.