When the trailers first hit the market for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, I was not impressed. Here it seemed Hollywood was yet again rehashing an old franchise that didn’t warrant revisiting. The effects didn’t look very good, and the story seemed as silly as ever. Sure, I enjoyed the original films as a kid, but even then I recognized them as high camp, and their lame attempts at social commentary were lost inside of actors in goofy ape suits and Charlton Heston’s comical over-emoting. But then the film came out this past weekend, and the good buzz was palpable and made me think I should check it out in spite of my misgivings. I come before you, my readers, willing to admit when I am wrong.
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best reboot of any franchise since Batman Begins. It’s also the most fun I’ve had watching a sci-fi morality tale since District 9. While it lacks District 9‘s satirically leanings and over-the-top gore, it makes up for it in character development and emotional involvement. Whereas the original series clumsily drew parallels to the Civil Rights movement, this new incarnation goes back to the age-old warnings against Man abusing Nature and underestimating the power of animal instincts. Leaps of logic and driving through gaping plot holes are required, but hell, we are talking about a movie featuring a talking chimp…so just go with it, okay? It seems Hollywood will also occasionally admit when it’s wrong, as the new film is loaded with clever nods to the Heston originals and draws no lines of reference to the debacle that was Tim Burton’s 2001 remake. Some things are best forgotten and treated as if they never existed.
In a near-future San Francisco, a scientist (James Franco) feverishly races to find a cure for Alzheimer’s (of which his father, played by John Lithgow, suffers) through radical experiments on chimps. Do I need to say any more? You can probably tell where this is going. Eventually we have our good-hearted scientist hiding a baby super chimp from the evil corporation he works for after your run-of-the-mill experimental debacle. Behold…Caesar. While in the previews I thought the effects were nothing special – on the big screen they work quite well. Andy Serkis – the 21st century Lon Chaney – provides the skeleton, heart and soul behind the CGI Caesar just as he did playing King Kong and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Equally impressive are the secondary characters, including a wise old orangutan, who it was nearly impossible to tell wasn’t real, and a big bad bodyguard of a gorilla that could give Kong a run for his money. The Weta Digital Effects team again proves to be the best in the business second only perhaps to James Cameron’s crew.
The producers also deserve kudos for casting the aloof Franco and the wooden Freida Pinto as the nicest humans. When you put them up against Serkis’ Caesar and the other apes, the simians act circles around them. This opens up the door for the audience to relate to and sympathize with the apes. We grow to know them…and we root for them. In the cleverest piece of character development, Caesar is relegated to an ape sanctuary after a run-in with the biggest douche-bag neighbor of recent memory. He was defending Lithgow’s character, who he had grown to love as an elder who needed help. In the sanctuary, run like a prison complete with corrupt warden (Brian Cox) and sadistic guard (Tom Felton), Caesar learns that the orangutan can speak like him through sign-language. It’s then that he comes to a realization: maybe he can work with these other primitives…maybe he can teach them…maybe he can become their leader…and maybe together they can revolt.
And here’s the brilliance of the film…and it emerges through a minor coup scored by its director, Rupert Wyatt. Like Duncan Jones did earlier in the year with the smart and economically fun Source Code, Wyatt shows off with his sophomore effort. He’s a Brit who got his start with a wickedly good little independent film, the prison-break thriller The Escapist. No with this Apes reboot, he proves he can handle a mainstream studio film and deliver the goods without sacrificing the substance. Tucked in between the origin story of the famed franchise, Wyatt has subversively implanted a thrilling and intelligent prison drama where we watch Caesar gain a keen awareness of his surroundings, usurp the alpha-male, gain the respect of his fellow inmates, and hatch a brilliant escape plot. Clearly this is Wyatt’s bread-and-butter, and in only his second film, he shows the clean, smooth lines of a skilled auteur. The movie has his indelible stamp, and it’s all the better for it.
If the producers have any sense (and it seems like they do)…they’ll offer Wyatt the world to continue behind the director’s chair with what inevitably will be a new series. If Wyatt has any sense (and it seems like he does)…he’ll run as far away from the franchise as he can and ply his trade with original films he can continue upon which to put his signature spin.
Ultimately, we have to enjoy this film alone and in the moment. And don’t forget that money shot of that kick-ass gorilla leaping off the Golden Gate Bridge to bring down a helicopter. They’ve showed it ad nauseam in the trailers, and admittedly, it looked pretty cool. Under Wyatt’s skilled hand, however, in the proper context of the film, it packs an emotional wallop. The build-up to the money shot is brilliant…and trust me, you will care about that damn, dirty ape. For the producers, the effects team, and Rupert Wyatt…it may have been a leap of faith to think the audience would buy into it. But how couldn’t we? You see, for the characters of the apes, this revolt (as symbolized by that money shot) is no leap of faith, but instead a leap of fate.
It’s been predetermined. Humans are doomed. And there’s nothing we go bananas more for than watching our own demise. Long live the Apes!
Written by David H. Schleicher