As written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and directed by Rupert Wyatt, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' was, for me, a shining star in a summer of disappointing action tentpoles. It's smartly written, character-focused, thematic, and, when it ultimately becomes the action film promised in the trailers, it's a bombastic, whiz bang of a good time featuring extended moments of exhilarating on-screen carnage and suspense. I have read that this prequel is a series reboot akin to the most recent 'Star Trek' film, serving as an origin story that, most likely, does not fit into the original Apes cannon, but after having watched the film's behind the scenes documentaries, the writers and other filmmakers state they intend it to be a straight reboot. An origin to the world Charlton Heston will eventually visit. Regardless, this is the story of how Caesar, assumed future leader of the Planet of the Apes, came to be.
Like many cautionary 'Frankenstein' tales, this one begins with a young scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) with an ill loved one. Will desperately wants to find the cure for Alzheimer's in hopes to save his father, Charles (John Lithgow). Will's theory is that he can use a modified virus to repair and revitalize degenerating brain cells. In the most recent round of testing has granted test subject chimpanzees hyper-intelligence. But, when Will's most successful chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, goes on a destructive rampage, the program and the test apes are terminated.
As fate would have it, Bright Eyes became violent not because of a virus side effect, but rather because she had secretly given birth and was protecting her offspring. Will takes the chimp home in order to protect the little one from being put down. Charles names him Caesar, after the Shakespeare play. As Caesar develops intelligence inherited from his mother, it's clear Will's experiment is not quite dead. Caesar makes a fantastic pet for the first few years of his life, learning a great deal, but alas, wild animals who begin cute have a habit of becoming more troublesome and dangerous as they age, despite having extra care and attention from Will's girlfriend vet, Caroline (Freida Pinto).
Caesar begins to feel trapped in the confines of his attic bedroom, and becomes more and more aware of his "self." He doesn't want to be a "pet." Meanwhile, Will secretly restarts his Alzheimer's virus-cure research because he is convinced he was close. Caesar's brain scans are the proof. And, when Will tests the sample on Charles, the results are beyond expectations. Charles fully recovers, but only temporarily. Charles' immune system eventually defeats the virus and the Alzheimer's returns, which sparks an altercation between an overprotective Caesar and the neighbors.
As a result, Caesar is forced to go live under the care of the heartless John Landon (Brian Cox) and his animal teasing son, Dodge (Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy). It is here Caesar will learn the cruelty of, and cast off his dependence on, mankind. It is here he will learn to be a leader. It is here where the end of mankind will begin.
I could summarize some more, and perhaps I've already gone too far, but this isn't a simple point A to B narrative. Like 'Batman Begins', this is a character journey for Caesar, and Will to an extent. The story takes its time and we see the cause and effect of their fears, desires, and dreams fold out in a smart organic way over the film's sparse 105 minute running time.
What amazes me the most is how much this story plays like a character drama, and eventually prison drama like a 'Cool Hand Luke' or 'The Great Escape'. These are humans and animals with which we empathize. Franco proves himself to be a grounded leading man and believable scientist. And my hat is all the way off to Andy Serkis as Caesar. Mr. Serkis, whom 20th Century Fox is pushing for an Academy Award nomination, once again proves to be the king of motion capture. Like Gollum and 'King Kong' before, Serkis' performance is a masterful combination of humanity and animal movement. For most of the film -- a good 99 percent -- the various Weta Digital apes look photo realistic. The Orangutans, in particular, are flawless. In fact, you may be surprised to learn the filmmakers actually didn't use any live apes for this production.
Directionally, Mr. Wyatt made a lot of smart choices, like hiring one of my favorite composers, Patrick Doyle, as well as the use of shots longer than most seen in modern action films. There's an exhilarating moment where Caesar goes to the forest for the first time to run free. It's pure, silent cinema where the audience gets to really feel what it's like to be Caesar. Also, Brian Cox and Tom Fenton make for solid bad guys. They play characters we've seen before, but their villainy is bureaucratic, real, and terrifying.
I know I've been talking a lot about the drama, but I'm sure most of you want to know how it delivers the action goods. I'm attempting to stay as spoiler free as possible, though Fox's marketing department used a significant portion of footage from the second half of the film in its trailers, but once Caesar leads his rebellion against the Landons, the film accelerates towards a visceral, exciting climax. In the cinema, or at home, I was on the literal edge of my seat.
Overall, there's a lot to enjoy about this new Apes film. Why does this work so well? I think it boils down to the script. Usually, there are tens of writers on blockbusters, but Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver survived development and stayed on the whole time, inspiring a whole fleet of filmmakers to bring their creative vision to the silver screen. Many people made a lot of smart choices here which, sadly, seems to be a rarity these days. Personally, I can't wait to see the next chapter in this rebooted franchise.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' arrives on Blu-ray as a two disc edition, featuring one Region-A locked BD50 and a DVD housing the standard definition version of the film as well as the Digital Copy (not UltraViolet). Forced trailers include 'The Sitter' and 'In Time'. If you've never seen 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' before, I would strongly encourage avoiding the Main Menu montage.
Framed with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1, the AVC-MPEG4 encoded 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' Blu-ray is nearly perfect. Save for the occasional soft focus, some minor variances in skin tones, and a barely noticeable layer of faux film grain buzzing over the CGI creatures -- which seemed to suck resolution -- there's a lot to enjoy on this Blu-ray. Detail and resolution are abundant. As I said above, the various ape species look photo real. Colors are bold and vibrant, especially the many magic hour shots set atop Muir Woods overlooking San Francisco. Black levels are good too, as evidenced by many layers of darkness in the row of prison cell cages where Caesar and the others live. And, as we would expect, the source material is in terrific shape. Overall, it looks great and is close to perfect.
Fox's 5.1 English DTS-HD MA audio track is a power house that performs equally as well in dramatic moments as it does in action set pieces. Patrick Doyle's score spreads out wide with lovely highs and thundering lows. Dialog is always nicely articulated. From the opening jungle moments, to the whizzing bullets on the Golden Gate bridge, sound effects spin and pan with ease, creating a sense of depth and of really being there. LFE is supportive and punchy, but could have gone a little deeper in a few moments. Personally speaking, this is about as good as it gets for 5.1, and while it matrices nicely using Dolby ProLogic IIx/z, I'm starting to get spoiled by theatrical mixed, or home entertainment remixed, 7.1 tracks. On one hand, it's unfair to judge a surround sound track based on two channels that do not exist, but on the other, I feel as though a bar has been raised in the audio department. Without 7.1, surround sound tracks can be very good, and tell the story very well, but it's just shy of the perfection it could be.
Minor complaint aside, audio fans will love to crank up this track, especially in the more action-pack sequences.
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' features a nice mix of behind the scenes featurettes. Personally, my favorite style of documentaries are more instructive and fly-on-a-wall type, and these ones are pretty close to that style, though there is some self-congratulation and talking heads over film footage. Generally, though, fans should be pleased.
'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' was terrific on the big screen, and continues to thrill on Blu-ray. I found the scripting, direction, action, CGI imagery to be grounded, effective, entertaining, smart, and exciting. This is a demo-worthy disc with near reference quality picture and audio, though I personally wish it had been a more immersive 7.1 mix. Fans will also enjoy the special features, of which there are many. Highly Recommended.