Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I’ve never been a big fan of the Planet of the Apes films.  As a nerd, I know that saying so can be considered sacrilege, but the truth of the matter is that they aren’t very good.  I can fully recognize and embrace the idea behind them, sure.  The concept of space explorers returning home to find that man is no longer the dominant species is an intriguing one.  I even adore the influence that Planet of the Apes has had on pop culture.  The iconic image of Charlton Heston falling to his knees in front of the rotting corpse of the Statue of Liberty and screaming “You Maniacs!” is one that will always be burned into the pleasure center of my brain.  But none the less, the films have always played like mildly racist B-movie nonsense.  So, needless to say, when it was announced that a prequel film would be released, I was less then ecstatic about it which made my experience with this film all the more enjoyable.

The story of Rise of Planet of the Apes is one that takes a welcomed while to really get moving.  Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco who, refreshingly, isn’t gunning for an Oscar or playing for cheap laughs) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s.  After inventing a drug and testing it with wild success on a chimp named Bright Eyes, the study is shut down when the miracle ape breaks loose and violently crashes a board meeting.  As it turns out, Bright Eyes was pregnant and lab tech Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) can’t bring himself to terminate the newborn so he convinces Will to take the baby home.  The young chimp quickly bonds with Will’s father Charles (John Lithgow) who, of course, suffers from Alzheimer’s and names the new member of the family Caesar.

From this point on the years come and go quickly, as do the mental barriers standing between chimp and man.  Caesar proves to have inherited the effects of Will’s miracle drug which, without a damaged brain to repair, has instead boosted the natural development of Caesar’s mind.  By three, Caesar has mastered sign language and can solve complex puzzles.  He stares out the attic window, watching neighborhood children play and questions why he can’t do the same.  His intelligence and curiosity is boundless and he wants to explore everything this world has to offer.

But Caesar’s intelligence proves to be both benefit and burden for the young ape.  By the time he is five, Caesar is akin to a mopey teenager, looking for answers about who he is and what his existence means.  After noticing that dogs wears a similar leash to his own, Caesar asks Will if he is a pet.  He has the intelligence to understand that he is different, but lacks the wisdom to understand why.  So it is little surprise that when Caesar sees a neighbor violently yelling at Charles, he responds emotionally.  Caesar attacks the confused neighbor, an act that lands him in a primate shelter run with violence and a complete lack of compassion by a father (Brian Cox) and his malicious son (Tom Felton).  Caesar sees in them the absolute worst of humanity, which inspires the choice that will eventually lead to Charlton Heston on that fateful beach.

The interesting thing about this film is that it is, at its heart, a character piece.  What makes it unique is that the focus of this character piece isn’t Will, but Caesar.  WETA Digital again teams with actor Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings movies, who proves that sometimes the best performances come from behavior and not the spoken word.  As the motion capture artist behind Caesar, Serkis delivers a more nuanced performance then most actors could ever hope to.  In the bright hazel eyes of Caesar, we see every thought and emotion.  His complexity as a character is absolutely astounding and the performance delivered by Serkis allows Caesar to be both terrifyingly intelligent and sympathetically compassionate making his emotional journey incredibly fulfilling.  By the end of the film, the audience will find itself not only feeling sympathetic to the plight of the apes, but actually rooting for them and a lot of the credit for that belongs to Serkis and a performance that should get him a few major award nominations.

We all know where Rise of the Planet of the Apes is going, but the real joy here is the journey.  The most interesting portions of the movie happen with little to no dialogue and I give director Rupert Wyatt a lot of credit for not bogging down the forward motion of Caesar’s journey with unnecessary human-related subplots.  After all, this movie belongs to the apes and after a long summer of disappointing geek-pandering nonsense, it is incredibly refreshing to see a movie that manages to take a sub-par film series and turn it into a truly wonderful filmgoing experience.

RATING:  9/10

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~ by Andrew Craig on August 5, 2011.

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