Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Here’s the thing. The more one considers Tim Burton’s 2001 “reimagining” of “Planet of the Apes,” the easier it is to see the film as a narrative dead-end– never a good idea when one is trying to reboot a franchise. There’s still much that I like about that film, but it’s the work of a visionary being brought on as a hired hand, specifically hired to put his own stamp on a film. Once the film is completed, you know there’s no place to go with it.
Fox’s second attempt at reviving the “Apes” franchise on the big screen, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” is far more successful at breathing new life into the ideas first introduced in Pierre Boulle’s novel, and in the later entries of the movie series produced by Arthur P. Jacobs. If Fox plays their cards right, “Apes” will rise once again on the big screen.
One of the distinguishing features of Jacobs’s groundbreaking series of films was how it used the science fiction trappings to comment on, and reflect, the society in which they were made. The screenplay of “Rise,” by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, takes a similar approach, as we are introduced to Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientific researcher who is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s at Gen-Sys, a pharmaceutical corporation. They are brought a female ape from the wild to test on. The drug Will has been working on is successful; now is the time for human trials. Alas, the day Will is presenting his results to the board, the ape goes berserk, and barges into the board meeting, effectively shutting down Will’s research. However, as the tested-on apes are being destroyed, Will’s assistant finds something: a baby chimp. It turns out that the reason the female ape went nuts wasn’t a result of the drugs she was given, but out of her natural maternal instincts. Rather that destroy this baby, Will takes him home to his house where his father (John Lithgow), whom has an advanced case of Alzheimer’s, calls him Caesar. Gradually, Will learns that Caesar may hold the key to his research, and the real potential of what he is working on.
Right away, it’s not hard to see some of the social commentary at work here: there’s the idea of experimentation on animals being bad (which, hey, it is), as well as the good old “doctors playing God” motif that is almost standard in such films. But director Rupert Wyatt runs straight at those cliches and stares them down with an energy and passion for the material that overcomes the sometimes stiff performances of the actors: Franco is good, but sometimes seems to be just playing a riff on Harry Osborne, his “Spider-Man” character, although his scenes with Lithgow and Caesar (played to motion-capture perfection by Andy Serkis; more on him later) are affecting. The only other actor who seems to be trying to do something with this material is Tom Felton, who should graduate from “Harry Potter” antagonist to interesting character actor easily if his work here is any indication.
Really, though, the human characters are simply background; as it was with “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” to which this film serves as a sort of a sister film with, it is the apes, and the character of Caesar, that hold the bulk of our interest, along with our greatest sympathy. If you think the apes in this film are merely CGI animals combined with real apes, think again: all of the central ape characters, including Caesar; a circus orangutan named Maurice; and a captive test subject named Koda, among others, are brought to life with the same performance-capture process that brought Serkis’s Gollum and King Kong to life, as well as the characters of “Avatar.” What’s remarkable about this film is that, for long stretches of the film, we are simply watching apes interact with one another, and the effects by WETA Digital, combined with Wyatt and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie’s superb staging, are arguably the most impressive we’ve seen yet all year. This isn’t just a case of 1s and 0s interacting like other films (ahem, “Transformers”); the actors behind these digital masks make us believe that these apes are evolving into a truly sentient, and dominant, race of animals that can tip the balance of power on this planet. But its Serkis’s Caesar that rings truest; the actor plays him from childhood to adulthood, and the result is yet another performance that Oscar voters are going to be kicking themselves for NOT honoring. Get your act together, and get Serkis on the ballot. As his counterpart, Roddy McDowall, did in the original “Apes” series as Caesar, we see in Serkis’s performance the full evolution of the character from innocent servant of man to destined leader of a rebellion that will alter the course of Earth’s future. If we’re lucky, we’ll get to see Serkis continue in McDowall’s legacy, and serve as the heart and soul of another series of “Apes” adventures. I can’t wait to see what the future brings for this franchise.