Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis
This recommendation from Netflix is a bit of a cheat. Usually for this feature I go into a movie relatively blind, usually picking something that I wouldn't otherwise have sought out. This time, and because the pickings were a bit slim, I went with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a film that I've seen bits and pieces of but, for whatever reason, one which I'd never sat down and watched in its entirety before. As a result I’m super late to the planet of the apes party and at the risk of being ridiculously redundant: this reboot is pretty good. Reboots and “origin stories” have so flooded the market place in the last few years (and will continue to do so for years to come) that the very words are enough to make one’s eyes twitch, but a film like this one, which approaches the series’ premise from a different angle instead of just repackaging everything old to make it look new again, actually brings something of value to a series which had previously seemed to have run its course.
Although Rise of the Planet of the Apes has prominent human characters, it’s the eponymous apes who are the real protagonists. The film opens with the capture of chimpanzees in the wild, one of which will become known as “Bright Eyes” once she’s brought to a testing facility in San Francisco. At the facility scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) uses chimpanzees to test a drug called ALZ-112, which he hopes will provide a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, from which his father (John Lithgow) suffers. When Bright Eyes appears to go on an unprovoked rampage in the facility, the project is shut down and the chimpanzees are all euthanized – except for one. The one that remains is the one that none of the scientists had realized was there in the first place, a baby chimp recently born to Bright Eyes that Will sneaks out of the facility and takes home. Knowing that it was not the drug, after all, that caused Bright Eyes’ aggression, Will continues his research in secret as he raises the baby chimp, dubbed Caesar by Will’s father, with the help of Caroline (Freida Pinto), a primatologist who becomes his girlfriend.
After eight years’ under Will’s roof, during which time he’s treated as more human than animal, Caesar is taken away by Animal Control after a run-in with Will’s neighbor and placed in a primate shelter, where he is bullied by the other chimps and abused by Dodge (Tom Felton), one of the shelter’s caretakers. At first Caesar counts on Will to get him out of the shelter (which Will is desperately trying to do), but then he begins to take control of his situation, asserting himself with the other chimps and gaining allies in Maurice, an orangutan who, like Caesar, can communicate through sign language, and Buck, a gorilla whose loyalty Caesar gains after he unlocks the cage that he’s kept in 24/7. Soon Caesar is leading a revolution which spills out of the shelter and into the streets of San Francisco as he leads his followers towards the redwood forest at Muir Woods, which he intends to establish as their new home. The flight of the apes – whose ranks grow once they free others from the testing facility and from the zoo – brings them into conflict with law enforcement, who are ready to slaughter them to bring an end to the chaos. But while Will tries to get to Caesar before it’s too late, and Caesar continues to lead his followers forward, the real threat to humanity emerges in the form of a virus that threatens to destroy life as we know it.
The greatest strength of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which was written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is how thoroughly it puts the audience in sympathy with the apes, opening with a scene of terror when Bright Eyes is captured in the wild which immediately orients us to the apes’ perspective. By the time Caesar and his followers storm the Golden Gate Bridge, having watched them endure the horrors of animal testing and cruelty at the hands of those whose job is to protect them, you’re pretty thoroughly on their side even though their rise will result in humanity’s fall. Moreover, the ape characters are well-realized, with Jaffa and Silver and director Rupert Wyatt making excellent use of the sort of character tropes found in war or prison movies to bring some sense of definition to Caesar and his followers and the inter-relationships between them. It helps, of course, that technology has advanced enough that the ape characters can be brought to the screen in a way that allows them to look relatively natural as animals even as they take on increasingly human characteristics, and the actors performing behind the apes via motion capture technology all turn in solid performances, with Andy Serkis as Caesar being the obvious standout. Caesar emerges here as a genuine character, as someone struggling for much of the film with an identity crisis and coming to terms with the fact that he cannot live in both worlds, but must choose one or the other. It’s a performance which is compelling and sometimes moving, so that in the end Caesar seems to be the most human of all the characters in the story.
Of course, part of the reason that’s possible is that while the ape characters benefit from a lot of care and attention on the part of the filmmakers, the human characters sort of languish and are left seeming underwritten in ways that lead to a lot of questions. For example, how is it that a group of scientists who are smart enough to create a drug that could reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s, and whose job is to observe and chart all the changes their subjects are undergoing as a result of the drug, fail to notice that one of those subjects was pregnant and has given birth? Another question: how does Will manage to keep Caroline in the dark about Caesar for so many years even though he has an entire room in his home dedicated to the research he’s continued doing on the sly, including multiple charts and graphs detailing Caesar’s progress? While the relationship between Will and Caesar is crucial to the story, the human characters are written in such a way that, even if the virus didn’t start to take hold, the apes would almost be certain to gain control anyway simply because the humans around them are so dumb.
But all that aside, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is nevertheless an incredibly entertaining movie and as an origin story it works pretty much perfectly. I’ve never been particularly big on the original set of films in the series, but now that I’ve seen this one in its entirety I’ll be sure to catch up with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes once it’s available on video – though I’ll do that with some trepidation because if anything happens to Maurice, I’m going to be devastated.