Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes | Rupert Wyatt, 2011

I’ve written before that the lack of originality in Hollywood movies, particularly blockbusters, is alarming. So, when I heard a couple of years ago that a prequel to The Planet of the Apes was being made, I was not happy. This wasn’t because I’m a fan of the original (I like it but it’s not great or anything, and I haven’t seen any of the others), but because I bet that there are many original ideas out there that could be made with what they would spend on this movie. First, the title went from an interesting one like Caesar: Rise of the Apes to the current, awkward one for the sake of brand recognition. The trailers certainly didn’t help its cause, as they pretty much advertised it as being just about the visual effects and monkey mayhem (I know apes are not monkeys, but still). And then FOX didn’t let critics screen it until the week of release, and the reviews were supposed to be embargoed until the day of release. But then something funny happened: critics actually liked it. Some even hailed it as the best movie of the year so far. And it actually is. So what was the studio afraid of? Were they afraid that it would be deemed too original even though it’s part of a franchise? Were they afraid that people would not want to see if if critics called it “thought provoking?” Or did they know that they had a good movie in their hands and they just wanted to surprise everyone? Either way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best live-action blockbuster in years (oddly, since King Kong), as well as one of the most original.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a prequel to the original movie that starred Charlton Hesston, and also works really well as a reboot like Batman Begins. It stars James Franco as a scientist named Will Rodman that is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. He is particularly invested in this because his father (John Lithgow) is affected by the disease. One day, they have a breakthrough, but during the presentation to the investors, something goes wrong, and the project is shot down, and they order that all the chimps that were tested be put down. But a baby chimp survived, and he is taken in by Will . As Caesar, as they call him grows (and is played by the great Andy Serkis through motion capture), we realize that he is smarter than other chimps because the effects of the drugs that were given to its mother were passed down to him. So, he is raised as a human child. But as the years pass, and he begins to question his identity and purpose in life, and some tragic events pass, he leads a revolution that would change the world.

The first thing that I must praise is the script. Now, it is flawed, especially when it comes to the human drama. All human characters are underwritten and are there pretty much to give Caesar motivation. Franco’s is there to show him that not all humans are bad and is the father figure; Freida Pinto’s is there to show him about love as she falls in love with Franco’s character; Tom Felton and Brian Cox are there just to be mean (Felton will forever be typecast as the evil douche). And none of these character go anywhere beyond that. But what the writer does to, shall we say, explain the revelation of the original is handled cleverly and it does not take away from the main story, but makes a strong impact. However, this is not a movie about humans, and the part that involves Caesar and the apes is great. It’s a smart story about corporate greed and the dangers of animal testing, but most of all it is a story about what it’s like to be human. This last part is told through the point of view of an ape that was raised as a human child and harshly learns that no matter how good and loved he is, he will never be human. It shows that at our core, we all should be good people, but outside forces, particularly money, is making us destroy our world and ourselves. Powerful stuff disguised as a mindless action movie.

As good as the story is, however it would be absolutely nothing without three things: Andy Serkis brilliant performance, WETA’s visual effects, and Rupert Wyatt’s direction. For this movie, instead of using heavy makeup, the filmmakers decided to use CG for the apes. But instead of just letting the FX artists handle all the emotions, movements, etc, they used motion capture to let an actor do the work of adding humanity to the character, and then let the visual effects people make the character come to life while staying true to the actor’s performance. For this, they hired the best man in the business for this: Andy Serkis. He had previously given great motion capture performances in Lord of the Rings as Gollum and in King Kong as the tile character, but this here is an entirely different beast. In this movie he is pretty much the lead,  and he had to make us believe that an ape would lead a revolution. He had to give humanity to this chimpanzee, he had to make us root for him, and he did all that to perfection. While watching the movie I forgot that Caesar was just a CG creation, but thought of him as a real character, a real ape but with more human characteristics. There is a moment, before the revolution starts, when Caesar kills a man for self defense and immediately there is an expression on his face of fear, pity, and regret that he had to lower himself to that man. That moment took my breath away. No disrespect to the FX wizards, as they crafted some of the best visual effects in years, and make the movie stand out (the circus orangutan looks freaking amazing) but without an actor behind that, it would not have hit me as hard as it did (the same goes for the moment that has everyone talks about, but I don’t want to spoil it, as it is one of the few that made me say “holy shit!” out loud).

As for Wyatt’s direction, I must say that I’m surprised. Usually, summer blockbusters lack strong directorial sensibilities but not this one. Wyatt only had three independent films under his belt, but from here on out he should have no worries making movies with a budget. He understands that good visual compositions are as important as the visual effects. He knows how to shoot action and how to work with actors to get the most out of them. And there are a few moments that would not have worked under a lesser directors, like the montage of Caesar growing up, or the scene where all the apes are swinging through trees and we see leaves falling, or even the scene where the apes have spears. That last moment is so cheesy, and it acknowledges it, and it works.

As for everything else, it’s great. Andrew Lesnie’s cinematography is fantastic. Not showy, but not bland. Patrick Doyle’s score is the best action score since probably Transformers. The sound design is a perfect companion to the great visual effects. And the performances in the human roles are good, or as good as they can be given how underwritten the roles are. John Lithgow of the stand out of the human performances.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly fantastic movie featuring what may end up being the best performance of the year. FOX should have had more faith in this movie as they had a real winner in their hands. Hopefully, word of mouth will be strong for this and it gets the audience it deserves, and hopefully, it will be remembered come awards time. I wish everyone that was involved in this, especially Serkis and Wyatt in their future endeavors, and if a sequel is made, hopefully they’ll return for it.

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