Review: ‘Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ is smart, character-driven science fiction

08.03.11 8 years ago 34 Comments

As someone who has spent a fair amount of energy in the past criticizing the idea of prequels and the films of 20th Century Fox, it pains me to say that for the second time this summer, a prequel from Fox is actually a pretty hefty slice of entertainment, smart and soulful in a way I wouldn’t have guessed.  “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is entirely different than any other movie in the franchise, and that’s one of its strengths.  The film isn’t terribly surprising in terms of where it goes, but it is very clever in how it gets there, and it is driven largely by yet another groundbreaking performance from Andy Serkis, who is nothing less than the first digital age superstar at this point.

One of the first questions I had about this movie is “does this tie in directly to the series that already exists?”, and it appears that the answer is “sort of.”  There are definitely some direct references to the previous films, but for the most part, they’re the sort of elbow-to-the-ribs references I’m not a fan of.  Someone yells “it’s a madhouse,” someone else plays with a broken Statue of Liberty toy, and someone else tells a “damn dirty ape” to take its paws off of him.  Those references got the snickers you’d expect, but they’re quick and there aren’t too many of them.  There are some overt story connections to the original films that play out via newspaper headlines and cable news stories we see in the background that I found more satisfying and interesting because of the way it suggests where this story could be heading if Fox decides to follow up this picture.

What makes this work above and beyond its place in the franchise is that it would still be a completely satisfying picture even if there were no other films in the series.  It works as a complete film, and it works in a way that is very, very difficult to pull off.  Despite the presence of James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and Brian Cox in key roles, this is not a film about the human characters.  They are incidental.  This is the story of one ape in particular, and the way a series of decisions by human beings lead to an uprising and a shift in the balance of power on the planet.  It is largely experiential, told from the point of view of Caesar, played by Andy Serkis. 

The film actually starts one generation back, though, with the capture of Caesar’s mother in the wild.  It’s a harrowing sequence, and it works well to create sympathy right away.  The chimp is sold to researchers in the US and ends up at a lab in San Francisco where Will Rodman (James Franco) works.  Sys-Gen is funding his research into an anti-Alzheimer’s treatment, and for Will, the stakes are personal.  His father Charles (John Lithgow) is suffering from an advanced version of the disease, and Will’s watching him slip away a little more every day.  When they test a treatment called ALZ-112 on the ape that Franco’s named “Bright Eyes,” she responds immediately, growing smarter at an exponential rate.  The results are so promising that Franco manages to convince his boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) that they’re ready to move on to human trials.  As they’re presenting the research to the Sys-Gen board, Bright Eyes goes berserk and they end up having to shoot her and put her down, ending Franco’s program immediately.

It’s only after they’ve destroyed the apes that were all part of the test that Franklin (Tyler Labine), the ape handler, reveals the real reason Bright Eyes went crazy:  she had just delivered a baby, and she was protecting it.  The program’s done, so Franco smuggles the baby chimp out, unable to bring himself to destroy it.  As soon as the chimp gets home, it’s obvious that he’s no ordinary animal.  He has inherited the accelerated intelligence from his mother, and he develops at an extraordinary rate, and Will raises him like a child, indulging that intelligence, encouraging it.

There’s a big stretch of the film that just deals with Will’s relationship with the chimp that his father names Caesar, and it is incredibly moving to see just how fully Serkis brings this character to life.  When people say they don’t understand why filmmakers or actors are excited by performance capture, it’s because we’re still in the early days of this, and we don’t have many great examples to point at yet of how this really works.  You can now use “Rise Of The Planet of The Apes” as a perfect case study in how an actor can project a soul through a digital character and really bring it to life.  Caesar is the main character, and we see him grow from a clever but immature chimp in captivity, raised in absolutely optimal human conditions, pampered, loved, into an animal twisted by the worst sort of human behavior, abandoned, angry, ready to run.  And Serkis plays it all. 

The work by WETA Digital in bringing Caesar fully to life is impressive, more so as the movie wears on.  There are some beautiful performance sequences in the film, where every character onscreen is a WETA Digital character, and Rupert Wyatt and Andrew Lesnie shoot it like a regular dialogue sequence, all performance-minded.  This movie makes very few stops for “the big moment” or “the money shot.”  Instead, it amazes because of the degree to which these apes become characters.  Maurice, a circus orangutan who speaks to Caesar using sign language, is a great character, and Karin Konoval is wonderful in the role.  Subtle and sad and then inspired as he realizes what it is Caesar has planned.  Terry Notary plays two parts, and there is strong character work by Richard Ridings, Devyn Dalton, Jay Caputo, and particularly Christopher Gordon as the creepy-looking Koda, as smart in his way as Caesar.  Watching each of the apes come to cognitive life is handled in a way that you see it through performance, not through dialogue or exposition.  Nobody stops the movie to tell you, “Now all of the apes are smart.  We should probably do something about this.”  The film avoids most of the easy mistakes of the genre.  It’s lean and mean and it plays for keeps.

Rupert Wyatt’s film “The Escapist” was one I liked a lot, and I thought it was a smart stylish approach to something that a million other people had done.  In a way, that’s what “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is, too.  It’s a science-gone-wrong horror film if you strip it down to its bones, but the way Wyatt plays the material, he does something very different with it.  He makes the case that mankind gets what it deserves on a couple of fronts, and in order to really get Wyatt’s whole point here, you need to watch not only the main story but also all the texture of the world that Wyatt paints going on outside in the media.  You should stay in your seat when the credits start, because the film’s ultimate kick is delivered as a coda mid-credits.  It’s not the blow-your-hair-back impact of the ending of the 1968 original, but what is at this point?  There was a different media when that film came out, a different saturation point for pop culture.  Things happened differently in terms of hype and buzz.  This film’s been an underdog since it was announced because I don’t remember anyone particularly saying, “Oh, thank god! I have been desperate to see a prequel to ‘Planet Of The Apes’ where none of the apes can talk yet.”

That’s what Wyatt’s made, though, and the triumph for him as a storyteller is the degree to which he makes you invest in the apes and their struggle.  I think the film could have gone a little further and given me even more time with the ape characters after a change has started to take hold of each of them.  It’s the best stuff in the movie, this revolution that simmers along inside an ape preserve run by John (Brian Cox) and Dodge (Tom Felton) Landon.  It’s a madhouse, basically, and the apes are kept in awful conditions, treated poorly, and encouraged to play rough with one another.  Caesar is not built for that.  He’s never been around that.  If he’s going to survive, he’s got to be smart.  And suddenly you’re watching this digital ape version of “Un Prophet” play out, and Caesar is a genuine badass, a great worthy lead.  He is a hero.  He raises his people up.  He sees the way, and he makes it happen, and it is pretty satisfying to watch his plan play out.  It’s also crazy, because what we’re watching is the moment that the power starts to slip from us to them.  This is the moment we lose the planet.  It’s still early days, but this is the moment that counts.

Technically, the film’s great.  Wyatt has a sharp eye for composition and he stages his scenes efficiently, leaving himself room to play certain moments for all they’re worth.  He picks his emotional beats to hammer home, and he pays them off.  Patrick Doyle’s score is big and insistent, and Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt, two of the best cutters in the business, give the film an urgency that finally culminates in a moment of real emotional payoff, and that doesn’t offer up an easy answer.  Is Caesar a hero?  A villain?  An inevitable consequence?  A glorious accident?  Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have tried to leave room for the audience to have a reaction instead of answering some of the tougher questions, and it’s an approach that I think makes the film linger.

For years, I’ve heard Terminator fans say that they want the Future War, and I remain unconvinced that it is anything but a bad idea.  I think nothing anyone films is going to compare to whatever the fans have in their heads at this point.  You are simply courting disappointment to make that movie.  Of course, someone will make that movie.  It’ll happen simply because it hasn’t so far.  And I wince at the thought of it.  This, however, is an example of a prequel moment, a turning point, that I never thought I really needed or wanted to see on film that turned out to be a pleasure, a smart and grown-up science-fiction thriller that honors the name it carries.  Like “X-Men: First Class,” this suggests a world I’d want to see more of, and it raises exciting storytelling questions that I hope Fox will answer, provided the audience turns out for this one.  It’s worth it, and it’s exciting to see them get this property this right after almost fifteen years of toying with some of these story elements.

“Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” opens everywhere on Friday.

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