Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a revolution; an action-packed epic featuring stunning visual effects and creatures unlike anything ever seen before. At the story's heart is Caesar (Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee who gains human-like intelligence and emotions from an experimental drug. Raised like a child by the drug's creator (James Franco), Caesar ultimately finds himself taken from the humans he loves and imprisoned. Seeking justice, Caesar assembles a simian army and escapes -- putting man and primate on a collision course that could change the planet forever.
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 the 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.
Vital Disc Stats: The Ultra HD Blu-ray
20th Century Fox Home Entertainment brings Rise of the Planet of the Apes to Ultra HD Blu-ray as a two-disc combo pack with a flyer for a Digital HD Copy, which can be redeemed via FoxRedeem.com but only available in HD / SDR and HDX on VUDU. The dual-layered UHD66 disc sits comfortably opposite a Region Free, BD50 disc inside a black, eco-cutout keepcase. At startup, the UHD goes straight to a main menu screen with full-motion clips, the usual options along the bottom and music playing in the background.
Caesar seeks paradise sanctuary on Ultra HD with a strong and great-looking HEVC H.265 encode, offering an appreciable upgrade over its Blu-ray counterpart but sadly, not by a significant margin. It's uncertain if the studio simply recycled the same 2K digital intermediate used for the Blu-ray or went back to the original 35mm source, but whatever the case may be, this UHD doesn't compare to some of the best we've seen on the new format. In fact, it's pretty comparable to the HD version with just enough minor differences to still make the HDR10 the preferred way of watching the sci-fi drama.
For example, overall definition and clarity receive a nice uptick, revealing a bit more in the clothing and facial complexions for a good chunk of the runtime. Various objects in the background, whether inside the Rodman household or the lab equipment, are a tad more visible within the shadows. But again, not by much. There are several softer moments throughout, many of which are related to the computer-generated sequences because they are traditionally mastered at 2K. In truth, although individual hairs are largely distinct while the textures in the apes' faces are fairly lifelike, the CG imagery throughout is made all the more apparent and artificial-looking. Occasionally, I also detected some mild ringing in certain spots, but thankfully, it wasn't too terrible or egregious, just enough to distract from time to time.
This 2160p video comes with a slightly brighter contrast, which is most evident when characters wear clean white shirts or sterile lab coats. The clouds and fluorescent bulbs, too, appear perkier, but unfortunately, the very brightest spots glow with such intensity that they mildly crush the finer details within those same clouds, the light bulbs or the collar of the shirts. Black levels also receive a nice upgrade, looking darker and more natural than before, providing the 2.40:1 image with a welcomed cinematic quality and some appreciable depth. Shadow delineation is strong with plenty of visibility in the darkest portions of the frame. The overall palette doesn't benefit much or look notably more vibrant than in HD, though the blue sky is a bit livelier and the pinkish-orange glow in the afternoon clouds is more animated. Flesh tones remain the same, sometimes flushed and at other times natural. But in the end, the 4K presentation makes for a nice upgrade but not a dramatic jump from its Blu-ray counterpart.
The UHD arrives with the same excellent DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack as the Blu-ray, and I share the same thoughts as Mr. Palmer. So, I'll simply restate what he previously wrote in his review of the Blu-ray, except for one minor aside of my own.
Fox's 5.1 English DTS-HD MA audio track is a powerhouse 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. Dialogue 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. (One of my favorite scenes was Caesar at the sanctuary and during the apes' escape. As they run, climb, swing and fight towards their freedom, various grunts, howls and whoops are heard all around, creating a terrifically immersive soundfield. These moments, in particular, lend themselves awesomely when applying the receiver's DSU function, flawlessly bleeding many of those atmospherics into the overhead channels.)
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 soundtrack 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 soundtracks 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.
Audio Commentaries: The first track features Rupert Wyatt talking extensively about the production and plot, mixed with his thoughts on the themes and a few anecdotes from the set. In the second track, writers and producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver provide an interesting and highly informative perspective on the script versus film, character motivations and their aspired themes.
The Great Apes (HD, 23 min): A look at the CG animation process with various factoids and footage.
A New Generation of Apes (HD, 10 min): Interviews with the filmmakers and folks at WETA, mixed with BTS footage of the actors and the animation process.
The Genius of Andy Serkis (HD, 8 min): Cast and crew shower the actor with well-deserved praise.
Composing the Score (HD, 8 min): Composer Patrick Doyle talks about his process and motivation.
Mythology of the Apes (HD, 7 min): Interviews discussing the original classic and where this prequel fits in.
Breaking Motion Capture Boundaries (HD, 2 min): Brief look at the Golden Gate sequence.
Deleted Scenes (HD, 12 min): Eleven exorcised sequences.
Still Gallery (HD).
Scene Breakdown (HD).
For fans of the original 1968 sci-fi classic with Charlton Heston, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet Apes came as an unexpected surprise, surpassing all expectations and reigniting a new interest in the franchise. With an emotional, poignant core that has audiences siding with the apes, the film is smart and effective featuring a great cast with another standout and memorable motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis.
The Ultra HD doesn't quite deliver the punch one would expect or the dramatic improvement over its Blu-ray counterpart, but the overall 4K presentation nonetheless offers a minor upgrade for fans to enjoy. Porting over the same excellent DTS-HD soundtrack and set of supplements, the overall package is worth checking for early adopters and enthusiasts hungry for more 4K material.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.