Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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August 25, 2011 by Matthew Mesaros

It’s okay to stop reading this after I declare Rise of the Planet of the Apes one of my favorite films of the year. I won’t hold it against you.

When it was announced, I wasn’t alone in rolling my eyes at the prospect of another franchise reboot that would likely be released in 3D and bear no resemblance to the original film. It wasn’t until a few years ago that the stench from Tim Burton’s 2001 adaptation finally dissipated; but the trailers for Rise were a strong reminder that tinkering with a classic movie can yield horrible, unwatchable results.

Surprisingly, 20th Century Fox took a late-summer risk and made a self-contained prequel that’s 75% drama and 25% action (“self-contained prequel” sounds like an oxymoron, but it just means that the filmmakers don’t leave the story open for a modern sequel; Rise flows directly into 1968’s The Planet of the Apes). Sure, it has the gloss, star-power, and special effects of a blockbuster, but there’s also a subversive quality that suggests director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver want to re-train audiences to expect more out of Hollywood’s Idiot Season.

The film stars James Franco as Will Rodman, a hot-shot young scientist working at Gen-Sys, a San Francisco-based bio-engineering firm. On the morning of a big announcement to shareholders that the company is on the verge of an Alzheimer’s cure, the lab’s star ape, Bright Eyes, escapes and goes on a violent rampage throughout the building. Security puts the animal down, and Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) eliminates the project.

While killing off the rest of the project’s test subjects, a lab tech named Robert (Tyler Labine) discovers that Bright Eyes gave birth shortly before her escape (how an ape, even an intelligent one, could conceal such a thing in a state-of-the-art, highly monitored lab is the movie’s one, true head-scratcher). Neither Robert nor Will has the heart to end the baby’s life, so Will sneaks it home. He lives with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, Charles (John Lithgow), who names the chimp “Caesar” after the main character in his favorite book.

It doesn’t take long for Caesar to manifest signs of advanced intelligence, a side-effect of the Alzheimer’s cure that was passed down from his mother. He masters sign language and drawing and makes himself a useful companion to Charles. Will sees this as an opportunity to test the drug on his dad, and within a matter of hours, the old man steps out of his fog and gradually becomes a better version of his old self.

Talking more about story specifics is unfair to those who haven’t seen the movie. Suffice it to say that Will’s Alzheimer’s treatment doesn’t work as well as he thinks it does; and, yes, apes do rise. But if the previews showing apes flying into helicopters and attacking people with spears concern you, don’t be alarmed: Rise builds up to that stuff, but is far more layered and story-driven than the promotional clips suggest. In fact, the climactic fight on the Golden Gate Bridge is thematically important and downright sad. Instead of being the apes’ opening salvo in a world-domination plot, it’s an attempt to leave mankind to their own devices.

Okay, I’ve officially said too much. Let’s talk about Andy Serkis. The actor who brought Gollum to life in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy outdoes himself here—as does WETA Digital, the New Zealand effects company that turned Serkis’ motion-captured acting into a wholly realistic ape named Caesar. True, Caesar and his furry kin don’t always look 100% convincing, but I blame that on neither the performance nor the technology. It’s a side effect of the Uncanny Valley Rule, which, in terms of discussing cinema, has come to mean that any attempt to render a realistic human or animal inevitably causes a dissociative reaction in the audience. With Caesar, we’re presented with an ape that looks wholly convincing, but because the role calls for him to do things that are decidedly un-ape-like, we’re constantly snapping in and out of the movie’s fiction.

The effect takes some getting used to, especially if you’ve seen less-than-stellar TV clips. But in the context of the movie, Caesar achieves a greater level of realism and relatability than any CG life form that’s come before. There’s been talk of nominating Serkis for an Oscar, which I’d be okay with as long as he shares it with the entire WETA crew. The key to Caesar’s success is in both his movements and the way he emotes with his eyes and every muscle in his face (speaking of movement, Wyatt and company do wonders with perspective and camerawork in creating 2D depth and movement that puts the plastic-glasses-shilling purveyors of 3D eye-candy to shame).

It helps that he’s got a couple of great co-stars in Franco and Lithgow, who help sell Jaffa and Silver’s multi-tiered father/son relationship stories. Rise uses Will and Charlie, Caesar and Will, and a twisted father/son team who run a local animal-control compound (played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton, respectively) as walking metaphors that explore a wide range of familial dynamics. Notions of community (human and ape) and love (paternal, romantic, and platonic) also get some screen time; though I’m pretty sure the only reason Freida Pinto’s Caroline character was even written was to ensure that Rise wasn’t completely chick-free—she’s given nothing to do except looked puzzled and concerned, and, in a pinch, distract a cop so that Will can go about saving the day.

I have only one problem with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and that’s the filmmakers’ perceived need to pander to series newcomers who probably think Charlton Heston is the guy who invented the Charleston Chew. There are three fantastic references to 1968’s The Planet of the Apes: two that reference the ill-fated Icarus starship, and a really subtle one that pays homage to original film’s legendary closing shot. By including these, Jaffa and Silver let the die-hards know that their beloved property is in the right hands.

Unfortunately, they don’t stop there; in fact they tip the hat so much that it practically falls off the movie’s head. It begins with a quick glimpse of a Heston movie on a TV screen and ends with a callback of the actor’s famous “Damn Dirty Ape” line that completely ruins what should have been a poignant and surprising moment. A beat after a character says that line, something monumental happens; but I was reeling so hard from the utter ridiculousness of the first part that the second part’s importance was tarnished by the Godawful dialogue. Sorry for the vagueness; I’m trying to tread lightly here.

From the outside, it’s easy to mistake Rise of the Planet of the Apes for a mash-up of Project X, Gremlins, and Splice (along with The Stand—once again, too much information), and I won’t deny that it’s all of those things. But it’s also a sincere, exciting, and emotionally charged film that pays tribute to the sci-fi spirit of the original while staking out its own territory. Despite being a prequel, a summer action movie, and a special-effects showcase, Rise’s heart, brains and daring represent the next evolutionary step in pop entertainment.

Note: I know Jack about science; so if my de minimis understanding of Alzheimer’s and physiology have caused me to over-sell this movie, I apologize. But only a little bit.

[Originally published @ Kicking the Seat on 08/07/11.]

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