Rise of the Planet of the Apes Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, David Oyelowo, Brian Cox, Tom Felton
Release Date: August 5, 2011
Next to Star Trek the Planet of the Apes series is my favorite science-fiction and adventure film franchise by far. I can watch each one of the films, even the lesser sequels like Beneath the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes, and come away with something new to think of every time. Each film was a bold and heady Molotov cocktail of intriguing ideas, complex characters, pitch-black satire, and rousing adventure. With the exception of Battle, none of the films ever reached a fully optimistic conclusion, and despite some last-minute tinkering not even the ending of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was all sunshine and relaxed laughter. The movies were all about the downfall of the human race, brought down by their own imperial arrogance and replaced in the pecking order by the highly evolved apes once treated as pets and slave labor by the ruling elite. It’s certainly one of the most influential series of films in the history of the medium, the original genre franchise, and a merchandising powerhouse years before Star Wars and Harry Potter even existed.
Even though the series reached its end in 1973 with Battle, the Apes franchise endured for decades to come; there was an ill-advised attempt to relaunch the Apes film series in 2001 with the Tim Burton-directed “reimagining” of the original Planet of the Apes and attempts to keep the Planet of the Apes thriving in live-action and animated television that never had achieved the impact of the films. Now the series is getting another shot in the arm with the long-awaited prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which approaches the legend of the Planet of the Apes from an interesting new direction.
The movie opens with a female ape being captured in the wild. She is brought back to the San Francisco-based company Gen Sys (pronounced “genesis”), which specializes in advancements in medicine and scientific research. Their top scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which has stricken his once-brilliant music teacher father Charles (John Lithgow) to the point where he needs in-home care. The female ape, nicknamed Bright Eyes, is chosen to test Will’s cure ALZ-112 and soon the drug begins to show positive side effects in her. With these results Will goes to Gen Sys CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) to get the green light for human testing. Before the company’s board of directors can approve, Bright Eyes freaks out and goes on a rampage, forcing the Gen Sys security to put her down and the company to pull the plug on Will’s research. Later, he discovers the real reason Bright Eyes went wild: she was protecting her newborn. Will reluctantly takes him back home where he and his father raise the baby chimp, whom they name Caesar, as their own child. To Will and Charles’ surprise, Caesar starts to demonstrate unusual skills that he shouldn’t otherwise possess. Will surmises that the ALZ-112 he gave to Caesar’s mother had an effect on her unborn offspring. Now, the young ape is learning and progressing at an amazing rate. Will takes a chance and administers the drug to his father. Charles’s condition soon improves greatly and all seems to be well for the time being.
Over the years Will begins a romantic relationship with primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto) and Charles regains his old life. But Caesar is unhappy and those around him can’t stop staring at him and regarding him as anything less than a common house pet. After an incident involving Charles, whose body starts to reject the Alzheimer’s cure bringing the disease back with a vengeance, and an angry neighbor (David Hewlett) is violently broken up by Caesar Will is forced to turn the ape over to a local primate sanctuary run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his hateful son Dodge (Tom Felton). Will returns to Gen Sys determined to perfect ALZ-112 with more testing on chimps, all the while Caesar is forced to live in substandard conditions and endure occasional abuse at the hands of Dodge. In captivity, Caesar grows closer to his fellow apes and soon becomes their unofficial leader. While Will works tirelessly on the cure, Caesar builds his fellow primates into a well-organized army as they prepare to take the fight to the rest of humanity, no matter the cost.
I had my misgivings about how this movie would ultimately turn out. As I said at the beginning of this review, I love the Planet of the Apes movies so much I can usually find untold virtues in even the series’ lesser entries. The 2001 version directed by Tim Burton disappointed me greatly because it emphasized FX-driven spectacle over character, emotion, and the wealth of ideas running through the classic original Apes quintet that raked up millions in ticket sales and merchandising revenue in the late 1960’s/early 1970’s, but there were some things I loved about it. But the Planet of the Apes movies are not the Star Wars or Transformers movies; they’re better than that, smarter than that, and they’ll endure longer because of that. That’s the way I see it at least. You may have a differing opinion and I respect that, but I’m writing this review. I went into Rise of the Planet of the Apes ready for a watchable but ultimately bland special effects light show that would fade from my memory the moment I rose from my theater seat and made for the closest restroom. Yet my expectations were royally confounded and we the humble moviegoers hungry for bold, thought-provoking entertainment are all the richer for it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best movies of the summer, and possibly the year. Director Rupert Wyatt, previously best known for the well-regarded 2008 British prison drama The Escapist, and Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, the screenwriting team whose credits include The Relic and An Eye for a Eye, worked together to craft a story that combines strong character drama and fascinating speculative science fiction. Despite being a prequel to the original Apes series and containing story elements meant to set up future sequels, Rise never forgets to be first and foremost its own movie. It is a real film, not an overblown PowerPoint presentation for a non-starter franchise as most major blockbuster event films tend to be these days.
In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the movie that provided the clearest inspiration for Rise, there was also a revolt of oppressed apes led by an intelligent simian named Caesar, but that’s where the similarities cease. Conquest took place in the future (well, the future as it might have seemed to audiences in 1972) and in the film a virus had wiped out the planet’s dog and cat population, leading humans to adopt apes first as pets and later as indentured servants subject to torture and horrific conditioning. The Caesar of Conquest was the progeny of Zira and Cornelius, the two main ape protagonists of the first three films, and he was played by the late Roddy McDowall, who also played Cornelius in the Apes movies and would go on to play a different ape character in the short-lived Planet of the Apes live-action television series. Horror fans will remember McDowall as Peter Vincent, “the Great Vampire Killer”, from the original Fright Night. Caesar inspired his fellow apes to revolution in the face of slavery and oppression and the resulting uprising was violent and bloody. Without spoiling too much of the plot I will say that the Caesar of Rise is much different in what motivates him to rebel against the humans and the results are substantially altered as well, but at the movie the future is still in question.
It’s also a different film than what I’ve come to expect from the Apes series, both in terms of tone and overall execution. For one thing, the apes in this movie are not actors wearing excellent special FX ape make-up but rather actors playing more realistic simian characters through the use of performance capture and digital effects. For a generation raised on the adventures of Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and the great Maurice Evans hidden behind the top-notch effects make-up created by John Chambers, this may come across as more than a bit jarring. But the technology used to bring Caesar and his fellow primates to dazzling life courtesy of geniuses at the New Zealand-based effects house WETA Digital is the kind of movie magic that you rarely seen on screens anymore. To the untrained eye these could easily pass for real apes; the level of detail is meticulous, right down to the last hair and the iris in each eye. Of course the key element in the creation of the digital characters are the performances by the human actors doing the motion capture, and every one of them is worthy of awards attention.
The standout in the cast, ape and human alike, is Andy Serkis, the actor whose name has become synonymous with movie characters created with CGI and performance capture. The character that comes to mind the most is obviously Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (a role he’ll be reprising for the upcoming Hobbit), but Serkis has previously gone ape as the mightiest monkey in all of cinema in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of King Kong. What Serkis brings to each performance is a heightened use of emotional expression and body language; he achieves each performance brilliantly by subtlety becoming the character, the ultimate in method acting. Playing Caesar may be Serkis’ finest hour as an actor because he becomes an more fully realized character than the majority of the human cast. He embodies the characteristics of a maturing primate while incorporating the crucial elements of increased intelligence and repressed spirit. Serkis, with the invaluable assistance of the effects wizards at WETA Digital (the ones who he previously collaborated with in his performances as Gollum and Kong), makes Caesar one of the most memorable characters you will see in a movie this year; it’s a performance both haunting and heroic, humorous and heated, sweet-natured and a ticking time bomb. I wished this was the kind of beautiful acting that the Academy Awards recognized, but such is their deep-seeded hypocrisy and outdated ideals that they would scoff at such a suggestion. The Oscars are irrelevant these days anyhow so what’s the point of even wondering?
I didn’t have many issues with the human cast but there were sadly no real standouts among them. But as I think back on it I realize that none of the human characters really needed to stand out. They were all good enough to support the CGI ape characters, especially James Franco and John Lithgow. Franco doesn’t make for the most convincing scientist in his early scenes, but once Caesar comes into his life Will Rodman’s motivation for wanting to perfect the Alzheimer’s cure comes into focus. Through his relationship with his father Charles and Caesar Rodman becomes a well-rounded character and Franco’s performance makes him smart and sympathetic even as he’s playing the cliched scientist who tries to play God. His quest is not one driven by the desire for wealth, fame, or the need to satisfy his ego, but by the need to protect the ones he loves from disease and death. Lithgow is even better as the Alzheimer’s-stricken Charles, full of childlike joy at times but also a deep and saddening character whose mental deterioration would be difficult for anyone to watch. Having close relatives who I’ve watched slowly fade away until they eventually died, Lithgow’s portrayal hit close to home for me. The best scenes in the movie are the interactions between Will, Charles, and Caesar and the strangely affecting family unit they form; the scenes would have been laughable if it weren’t for the sterling performances of Franco, Lithgow, and Serkis. They’re truly the heart and soul of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The rest of the cast fares just fine, but often with varying results. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) makes for an attractive love interest for Will but outside of that she has no real character. She is mighty easy on the eyes though and Pinto exudes enough acting talent in the fleeting moments she gets that you wish she had been a better-developed character. I liked David Oyelowo (The Last King of Scotland) as the bottom line-obsessed company man Jacobs, Brian Cox (Red) as the primate sanctuary keeper Landon, and Tyler Labine (Tucker and Dave Vs. Evil) as Will’s lab assistant Franklin, but there wasn’t enough meat in the script to give them much to do as characters. Besides, Cox is clearly going through the motions here and it’s not a pleasant sight to see one of my favorite actors slumming it without a care in the world. Usually Cox can be counted on to give a zesty performance even with little screen time.
My least favorite performance (I hesitate saying “worst performance” because it wasn’t that bad) in the movie was given by Tom Felton, best known for playing Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, as Dodge Landon (an obvious nod to characters from the original Planet of the Apes). If most of the other actors in the cast had little to work with for their characters then Felton had nothing at all. He’s basically playing a sadistic little shit who is only so hateful and vindictive towards the apes his father cares for because he can be. When you see kids burning ants under a magnifying glass or pulling the legs off a spider usually it’s out of curiosity or the need to get a sick thrill. Maybe it’s one of those things for Dodge but you could never tell.
There is no real villain in Rise: Jacobs is a ruthless businessman but he’s also pragmatic and not exactly cruel, and you can sense that he empathizes with Will’s plight; John Landon is a hard-line realist who doesn’t see Caesar and the other apes as being capable of humanity but that persona philosophy doesn’t spill over into how he treats them, and yet it seems that maybe that’s why he has no problem letting his own son treat the apes inhumanely; and Dodge is a cruel bastard but he’s also a fool. The real villain in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is us. Humans. It’s our obsessive drive to conquer death, to slow down the march of time and defy the natural order of things by whatever means available, even if it means perverting our understanding of science.
Director Wyatt, working with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings) and ace veteran editors Conrad Buff IV (Titanic, Terminator 2) and Mark Goldblatt (Commando, Starship Troopers), constructs a handsome-looking film that proceeds at a nice pace with nary a sluggish moment and produces many images I will long remember. Patrick Doyle, who previously composed the music for the Marvel Films hit Thor, delivers another music score rich in excitement and emotion. Production designer Claude Pare (The Aviator) makes the world of Rise visually opulent while remaining low-key and believable. Outstanding work by all involved.
You want a great entertaining sci-fi adventure that will thrill you without insulting your intelligence? Then by all means go see Rise of the Planet of the Apes this weekend. Let’s make this movie a big hit so we can keep this magnificent and groundbreaking franchise running for decades to come. Damn the Transformers! The hell with Green Lantern! Long live the Planet of the Apes! Whew. Okay I’m done.