The Apes Will Rise: a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This is the inaugural post of my new themed blog days: Science/Fantasy Monday.  For an explanation of this see my ‘About’ page or “Rearranging the Furniture.”

On Sunday I went to the movies to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes with my brother.  We were both rather excited about it because we both loved the original Planet of the Apes movies, and after the fiasco that was the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, we were more the ready for a good version.  And Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivered.  It more than delivered.

My expectations for the movie, based on the previews and what I’d heard about it, were pretty high.  And yet the movie somehow managed to far exceed those expectations.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot: scientist Will Rodman is attempting to create drug to cure Alzheimer’s (which has claimed his father) and is in the process of testing the drug on apes.  It appears that the drug is successful, repairing damage to one apes brain and increasing her intelligence.  Unfortunately, due to a violent outburst mistakenly attributed to a side-effect of the drug, the test is canceled by Will’s boss and all the apes are put down.  However, the ape whose test had been successful had had a violent outburst because she had just given birth, so Will sneaks the newborn ape out of the lab and to his home in order to save its life.  Only later does he realize that the drug had been passed on the baby, making him extremely intelligent.  His father names the ape Caesar and the two raise him for years as he grows in intelligence.  When Caesar’s existence is discovered, he is taken away by court order to a ape house where the animals are severely mistreated, and the hyper intelligent Caesar begins plotting escape.  From here, things just get crazy.

While Will is obviously an important character, he is more a catalyst for the action than he is anything else.  The real main character of the story is very obviously Caesar, and it is his story of development, discovery, abandonment, and his rise to leadership and liberation that are the emotional core of the movie.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious elements and get it out of the way: the CGI (done by Weta Digital, who else?).  Unlike the original movies and the 2001 remake, which used costumes for the apes, this movie used CGI exclusively (using an abundance of reference to live actors, stunt doubles, and footage of real apes in action.  It was all beautifully done.  The detail was amazing, the movements were realistic, and the interaction between the CGI and the live actors was very well done.  The CGI was amazing, and it would have been much more difficult to enter into the reality of the story without realistic-looking apes.

We’ve got that out of the way now, right?  Yes?  Okay, good.  Let’s talk about Andy Serkis.

You may now him as Smeagol/Gollum from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.  He was also King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake of that movie.  Peter Jackson really loves working with Andy Serkis, but seriously, who doesn’t?  Andy Serkis, in combination with some really spot-on writing, MAKES this movie.  Andy Serkis played Caesar.  In order to make this movie as believable as possible, the director had Andy Serkis act out all the scenes with the full cast when you see Will (played by James Franco) hold Caesar’s hand, it is Andy Serkis that he is physically touching, not empty air.  Serkis wore a suit covered in tracking dots and other things to track his movements, right down to his facial expressions, so that all of this could then be incorporated into the CGI image of Caesar the ape.

But Andy Serkis is not just a place holder from CGI wizardry.  He is a serious actor playing a serious part to perfection.  He researched meticulously in order to get the movements, posture, and attitude just right. And while he doesn’t speak a word throughout his performance, his facial expressions and movement breathed life into what otherwise would have been nothing but a cypher.  This movie does not work unless the audience feels sympathy, affection, and even empathy with Caesar.  We have to feel for him, feel outraged on his behalf, and triumphant with him, or the movie falls apart at the seams.  Andy Serkis (as well as the writing), make this possible.

There have been petitions, on behalf of Andy Serkis, for the Academy Awards to change its rules so that an actor who portrays a character that is then animated through CGI can still be nominated for the Best Actor Award.  After this performance by Andy Serkis, the Academy should be seriously considering it.

While I’m on the topic of actors… James Franco, who played Will, did a surprisingly good job.  Let me say this about James Franco: sometimes he can be a very good actor and sometimes he can be extremely wooden and sometimes he just seems to be high on something.  He has a lot of potential, I think, he just isn’t consistent at all.  So I was a little worried about how he would do in this movie.  Thankfully, he seemed to take this role seriously, and the movie was better for it.

John Lithgow, who played Will’s father, also did a very good job with what could have been a fairly minor role for another actor.  Lithgow’s portrayal of a father with Alzheimer’s is first and foremost an instigator for Will’s actions, but Lithgow gives a touching, sympathetic performance which highlights the pain of victims of all forms of dementia, as well as their families.

Tom Felton (best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), also makes a fine showing as one of the assholes who works at the ape house that mistreats Caesar and all the other apes.  Tom Felton is extremely adept at playing douche-bag villains.  I nearly cheered when he met his demise.

I should also add that a movie like this needs a smart, detail-oriented director, which they obviously got in Rupert Wyatt.  This is, apparently, only Wyatt’s second time directing a feature-length movie.  It’s amazing that a virtual unknown newbie managed to land this gig at all, and even more impressive that this newbie proved himself more than up to the task.  He’ll definitely be worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

Last, but certainly not least, I come to the writing.  This version was written and produced by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, inspired by the original novel by Pierre Boulle.  And they did an absolutely fantastic job with both the source material and their new take on it.  While based on the premise of the 4th movie in the original Planet of the Apes series: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this movie is vastly different.  Both movies focus quite heavily on animal cruelty but do so in entirely different ways.  The plot presented in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far more believable a credit to the research and detail that went into the writing.  What is most striking about this movie, however, is that it not an action flick.  It is a serious drama with a bit of action tacked on to the end.  It is almost painful to watch in parts.  This movie is about science: its role, its potential, its consequences, and the dangers of treating it like a “business” whose main (perhaps only) goal is making money.  This is a movie about the ethical treatment of animals. About family and loyalty.  It asks hard questions about what makes something sentient, what makes something worthy of respect.

I honestly cannot stress enough how brilliant and touching this movie was.  It was not only extremely good science fiction, it was astoundingly important social commentary and human drama as well.  Everyone needs to see this movie, whether you liked (or even saw) the originals or not.  Go.  Now.  Then come tell me what you think.  It’s okay, I’ll wait here for you to get back.  You can thank me later.

And if you have seen it already, chime in!  I’d love to hear you what you think!

(Side Note: clicking on each image will take you to the article I took the image from.)