Although it’s being marketed and pitched as a prequel to the 1968 Charlton Heston classic, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is actually a remake of sorts. Mirroring some of the events and characters of the fourth sequel in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Rise uses that earlier movie, a hokey, dated tale of social unrest, as a jumping off point to tell a story that sets the stage for the world Chuck’s astronaut finds in the original.
Fortunately, Rise isn’t just one more slap-dash light show aimed at siphoning a few bucks off any remaining Apes fans. It has all of the color and energy of a proper summer event picture but it surprises us in the way it sells a silly premise and makes us care deeply about the motivations, emotions and ambitions of its central character. No, not James Franco. I’m talking about Caesar, brought to life by the combined efforts of WETA studios and actor Andy Serkis, employing the same techniques and performance that he used for Gollum and King Kong. Caesar is the emotional focus of the new film, and most of Apes triumph and poignancy come as a result of our investment in his character.
The film begins in a conceivable near future—looking just like our own world –where man has made breakthroughs in gene therapy and threatens to achieve a cure for the incurable; Alzheimer’s. When Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) tests his miracle drug on chimpanzees, it sets off a chain reaction of events that culminates in a young chimp named Caesar gaining sentience and an unwanted understanding of his place in the world. There’s a clear three-act structure that benefits the film’s simplicity and impact.
In 90 minutes we watch the young simian go from a loving suburban home with the Rodman’s to a brutal ape preserve in the heart of San Francisco where he must grow into a leader of diverse and divisive primates, and then enter the fray of that last act much touted in the trailers. This sequence is a poignant bid for freedom culminating on the mist-shrouded battleground of the Golden Gate bridge. Built into the cracks of this central struggle are teases and glimmers as to what really contributed to the downfall of the humans. Hint: It’s not as directly related to Caesar and company as you might expect. Stay a few minutes into the credits for the lowdown.
What Wyatt brings to the table is a satisfying sense of drama. I enjoyed Rise as much as any movie I’ve seen this year, and what endears it to an audience isn’t the sci-fi as much as it is the wonder of seeing things from a different, alien point of view. We’ve witnessed the talking apes before, watched test chimps gain emancipation in Project X, and marveled at Kong cut down in his grandeur in the midst of human civilization.Rise takes all of those elements and folds them into something new. This film doesn’t belong to the humans, it belongs to Caesar and his kin, and it is they—much like Heston’s Col Taylor in the first film—who are the crusading outsiders, trying to find a place in a world that looks set against them. This is accomplished through remarkably strong writing and plotting and exceptional, ground-breaking special effects. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a great reminder of the way imagination and technology can work together in the service of a good story.
The apes are nearly photorealistic and with the exception of a few hastily rendered shots that deny Caesar appropriate gravity when he leaps, it’s often hard to know if what we are looking at is physically there or just a series of ones and zeroes. The performance capture, particularly by Serkis, is worthy of high praise. The last time the mannerisms and behavior of primates was this well choreographed and integrated into human pantomime was 1984’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. Sure, Jackson’s Kong was in between but that film had one gorilla, while Rise captures the spectrum of the species, from jabbering chimps and stoic silverback gorillas to wooly, world-weary orangutans. The kicker is that every last one of them is a singular character with motivation and substance.
Serkis commits so completely to his creation that we never see Caesar as a simple chimp or as a furry human. From the moment he’s led from the San Francisco suburbs to the towering Red Wood forest and looks up with awe and wonder, I was sold on the soul behind those creepy expressive eyes. The intelligent gleam, the extraordinary compassion, and that wary suspicion of those around him make this ape as fascinating and dramatic as his Shakespearean namesake. The way he navigates the social enclave of the sanctuary in the later scenes reminds of Andy Dufresne changing the dynamics of Shawshank prison. Such a heavy comparison would not be likely if there wasn’t a character to relate to there.
The humans all do well enough, but none of them are truly front and center. Franco’s Rodman is a surprisingly nuanced father figure for Caesar and not your average mad scientist or naïve crusader. Lithgow as a man losing himself to the fog of Alzheimer’s is legitimately heartbreaking and tender and his interaction with Caesar is some of the movie’s most potent emotional stuff. Frieda Pinto is an afterthought as the love interest, while Brian Cox and Tom Felton as the father and son jailors running the sanctuary are appropriately menacing. Rightfully so, they all pale and fade in comparison to Caesar and his fellow revolutionaries.
That stand-off that closes the film would be silly in other circumstances, but it’s so painstakingly thought-out and tied into what’s come before that it ends up being uplifting and thrilling. The most absurd moment of the trailers—that great gorilla leaping at a helicopter hovering next to the bridge—is transformed into a moment of emotional power because when the brute makes that jump, there are stakes for his survival. The entire film is like that really. It’s stuffed with some needlessly cute references (do we really need the damn dirty apes line again?) and a few easy contrivances, but the context and depth running under the characters lifts it up and away from an easy cash grab and sets about a curious evolution that would see it be it’s own brand of satisfying pop art.