In light of the need for the fledgling days of this new blog to pack in content that isn’t just new releases or me just posting reviews of older films randomly, I’m helping it through its growing pains by using the release of the new summer blockbuster Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as an excuse for posting my recently-dug-out review of its excellent predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Enjoy.
Planet of the Apes is a franchise more notable for historical significance than quality. The first film, though solid entertainment, is not the classic it is often recalled as. Certainly, it’s an important film, and it is decent in most regards, with some standout moments in a few high tension chases and a shocking, bleak, and dramatically effective conclusion. However, much of its allegory is obvious and fairly trite, and the story really doesn’t have much else to offer. As for the other films in the original series (I haven’t seen any), their reputation is less than stellar (although Escape, the second sequel, has its share of defenders). The much-maligned 2001 Tim Burton version of the story is nothing special either, although in my opinion the hate directed toward it is undeserved. It’s a standard B-movie with some of the charm associated with the type. Unfortunately, it went off the rails into nonsensical territory during the climax, and it featured one of the silliest, most illogical concluding plot twists in recent memory. Ten years after that film, and over 40 since the original, can Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a new take on the point that kick-started the decimation of the human population and the titular rise of the apes, restore this franchise to the heights of the original film?
Oh yes it can. Surprisingly, Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is at least the equal of the original film, and, in my opinion, it actually one-ups it in certain areas. The reason it works is clear: the apes. More-so than even in the original film, the script, the direction, and the special effects here all blend together strongly and cohesively to create a whole that brings the apes to life in an involving an entertaining fashion. This isn’t merely to say that they look great (which they do, although there are a few scenes where it is obvious that they are CG). Rise works because it creates apes that feel human and complex; if anything, where the earlier films failed, this allows us to question the use of the word “human” to imply emotional connection when it’s really the apes here who we sympathize with.
The work done on main ape character Caesar in particular, is simply stunning. To bring this character to life, Andy Serkis (well known for playing Gollum and King Kong) was brought in and mo-capped, and then CG was layered over him. The end result is eye-opening, creating what is in some ways the most fascinating and most fully realized CG character ever essayed in the medium. Andy Serkis’ visual performance is phenomenal, particularly in the facial area, where he is able to convey, without a single word, an incredibly wide range of emotion. From the childlike joy of the early scenes, to the anger, sadness, and feelings of betrayal in the middle, to the cold cynicism and deep reflection present right before the apes begin to fulfill their contractual titular ambitions of the film, Caesar is completely believable and involving. This is thanks to the nuances of Wyatt’s camera and the script which provides a quiet set-up for the filmmaking, but also thanks, above all, to Andy Serkis. He is an emotionally complex protagonist, the kind of character who grows over time and comes to understand the world around him and how it treats him. He’s more sympathetic and yet more unsettling than almost any human character in the film, and watching his story unfold for two hours is exhilarating.
It’s good then that the story is predominantly Caesar’s, although there are human characters. The main one is Will Rodman (James Franco), a San Francisco scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease. Although the cure is intended for humans (naturally), his lab is using chimpanzees to test the drug. Results are promising, with the chimpanzees displaying markedly increased intelligence. However, after a tragic occurrence that leads to the death of Caesar’s mother and the forced euthanizing of the other apes, Will takes the newly born Caesar home as a pet. As the years go by Caesar himself displays increased intelligence, and, as he continues to grow mentally, he becomes more of a child than a pet. A misunderstanding mid-way through the film leads to Caesar’s incarceration in a primate shelter where he is poorly treated, and, as thoughts of rejection fill his brain, he turns his back on Will and the other humans. Who can guess what happens next?
Although the film includes Will and various other human characters, including his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and father (John Lithgow), an Alzheimer’s patient, none of them are as interesting as the titular apes. The performances are fine (although James Franco sometimes seems like he’s phoning it in) and the script gives them enough to do, but they are consistently outshined by their simian counterparts. The lack of human characters as compelling as the apes is the film’s only significant flaw, but thankfully as it continues on it’s more and more apt to realize this and train its camera where it’s most useful.
It must be mentioned that Rupert Wyatt’s direction is strong and at times phenomenal, particularly during scenes primarily focused on the titular apes. He has a clear, steady-handed approach, but he executes on a number of stunning sequences (all of which involve the apes). He chooses to film the sequences of ape infighting or impassion through long, swinging takes paced breathlessly, and it really allows the film to capture the fluid yet lightening quick motion of the characters perfectly – graceful and even elegiac but erratic and frantic, and able to switch between the two on a dime. The climax of the film, in which the apes break free from their cages and swarm through San Francisco in an attempt to reach the Red Woods, is also quite effective, and at time mesmerizing. In particular, an exciting battle on the Golden Gate Bridge between the apes and the police (apes vs. police. Hell Yeah!) is a bigger highlight of a film whose strongest moments are generally its quietest.
The best thing I can say about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that on multiple occasions it gave me chills… Something that a big-budget blockbuster almost never does. It centers around an increasingly rare summer-film feat: using the unique power of its very filmic-ness, its visual prowess, to evoke something more than a whimper and mechanized soulless-ness. This is the sort of visual storytelling, from something as little as a gesture of facial expression by Cesar to evoke character to something as big as a shot of the ape army lining two sides of a San Francisco street’s apartment buildings, spears in tow, to enact their revenge on a society they held them down, that so-called blockbusters are supposed to stake their claim on (it also features an awe-inspiring shot of leaves falling from trees that combines elegiac beauty and raw, simian primal energy). In some capacity, then, it’s one of the most exciting movies of its year because it works not just as entertainment in any medium, but a distinctly filmic entertainment, something damn proud of the power of movies to tell stories in unique ways.
All in all, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a consistently involving and frequently exhilarating film with heart and pathos, as well as momentum and energy, to spare. Thanks to Rupert Wyatt’s direction and Andy Serkis’ stunning performance, the promise of the screenplay, which is intelligently plotted and provides room for the main character (that is Caesar, not Will) too breathe and emote, to become real and fascinate us and never allow us to question his presence or his motives. He looks beautiful, which is to be expected, and he has real heart beneath the surface, which isn’t necessarily to be expected from a film this notable for its effects. The film’s screenplay deals with weighty issues in an at times no terribly deep manner – it’s competent but not magisterial on paper – but the energy and nuance of the filmmaking itself is so good it’s almost shocking. When Wyatt unchains his camera and allows it to swing through the high places of this urban jungle, or moves in gently to pierce the mysteries of Caesar’s soul, the film comes alive.