Hey, apes are people too.
Be honest: how many of you were expecting this one to be good? I know I certainly didn’t. After seeing how poorly the earlier Planet of the Apes movies were faring (I’m looking at you, Tim Burton), here I was expecting another downtrodden experience that was trying to milk whatever it could left from the utters of its franchise. Why wouldn’t I expect that? The same thing has been done with the Jaws series alongside every conceivable Friday the 13th movie ever made. Believe me, I wasn’t expecting a good movie when I heard that this movie was called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It honestly felt more like it was falling to me.
Here, however, is the rare occasion where a prequel/reboot actually contributes to the franchise rather than taking away from it. Taking place years before the events of the very first Planet of the Apes film, Rise tells the story of Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who is developing a potential cure for alzheimer’s deep within his lab. After testing it on multiple chimpanzees and noticing an effect in increased intelligence, one of them goes berserk, attacks her caretakers, then is killed in self-defense. The scientists are ordered to terminate the project and kill any ape left within the vicinity.
It is during his routine inspection where he discovers a small baby chimp deep within the cell of the female ape that was killed earlier. Knowing that the baby would die if he remained there, Will took the little baby home and raised him as his own.
As the years progress, we notice that the baby chimp shares the same characteristics as his mother did when she was in the labs. Both of them displayed feats of great intelligence and memorization. Both developed abilities to read, write and comprehend speech. Both learned the skill of being able to do sign language. Most impressive was their ability to convey, understand and express emotions, almost like they’re human themselves. As the small chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) grows out of his adolescence and into adult apehood, he begins to notice a darker side of humanity and plots a way to set himself and his fellow apes free from mankind’s grasp.
Here is a film that, by every definition, should not have been good. It had everything working against it. It’s the prequel to a film series that hasn’t had a good film since 1968. It’s the seventh film in a franchise that has long since lost its influence. And it’s centered around a main character who isn’t even human, an ape who, for more than half of the film, can’t even talk.
Believe me, I went into this film fully expecting to hate it. Turns out that it’s quite the opposite. Rise of the Planet of the Apes demonstrates exactly what a hollywood blockbuster is supposed to be, a smart, involving and intelligently made film that is equal parts exciting as it is relevant. Director Rupert Wyatt, who made the 2008 film The Escapist prior to Rise, is careful and delicate with the pacing of his film. Starting off on a very dramatic and touching note, we go through what can mostly be seen as a science-fiction drama about the relationship between the guy who plays Harry Osborn and his little ape-friend, until all hell breaks loose and the beginning of the human-ape war spawns itself.
I exaggerate a little bit, but you get my point. There isn’t a lot of action in the movie, or at least, not as much as you’d expect it to be Instead, there are a lot of small, intimate moments where Caesar and Will’s beings clash into each other, either bonding in very genuine, heartfelt moments or rubbing off of each other as starkly as their conflicting races are. This is a dialogue-driven movie, with Will and Caesar each questioning the decisions they make and how they should should both respond as the result of it.
A lot of things don’t really blow up in the movie, to be honest. But when it does, ohhhh boy, is it exciting. My favorite scene in the movie had to be when Caesar and his primate army broke out of a preservation facility in new york and pierced their way right through the heart of the city, almost like it’s the American revolution and it’s George Washington leading the charge.
At the absolute heart of this film, however, is Caesar, portrayed here by actor Andy Serkis. If you don’t recognize the name, you don’t deserve to call yourself a cinephile. Serkis is most known for a slew of CGI performances, ranging from Gollum in The Lord of the Rings to the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Great as he was as Gollum, I’m tempted to say that this is his best performance yet. When you watch the film, notice the differences at how he carries himself as an ape and as a slightly-more evolved ape. In early scenes, he’s just walking around like a regular animal, with his elongated arms carrying himself as he “oohs” and “ahhs” while rubbing the back of his head. As the movie continues on, Caesar’s evolvement is apparent, and you notice his regular instinctual appearance has been replaced with a tall, stark, and grim figure, bleakfully looking on at a society that he has lost all faith in. Gollum was a character he concieved entirely from his own inspiration, while King Kong was one he concieved from studying the natural behavior of apes. He does both here with Caesar, and successfully portrays a character who is not just an ape, but a super ape, one who is evolving to something much more dangerous at an alarming and vengeful pace.
The only complaint I will issue with this movie is its ending, which is so melodramatic and sappy that it could have been used for an “Animal Planet” commercial. Why did they have to do this? Who says a movie needs to end on an optimistic note? Why do we need to have a happy ending? Who says we can’t end on a bleak, grim note, foreshadowing on a downtrodden spiral of war, doom and apocalypse? We all know that this can only end one way anyway. The franchise isn’t called “Planet of the Humans”, after all.