It was with great trepidation that I approached Rise of the Planet of the Apes; I had no wish to see another junky reimagining of a classic property with dodgy CGI apes replacing John Chambers’ legendary makeup from the original series. I also was wary of its apparently Luddite anti-science agenda. However, in a clear case of “monkey see, monkey do,” I decided to check it out anyway, since everybody else was seeing it. And I am glad I did.
The greatest advantage Rise of the Planet of the Apes has in its arsenal is that the audience thinks it knows where the movie is going – so the filmmakers do their best to upend expectations, zagging instead of zigging, and cloaking the larger story by distracting viewers with the more intimate, engaging tale of Caesar the intelligent chimpanzee and his handler/father, Will Rodman.
Dr. Rodman (James Franco) is engaged in the search for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease for a very personal reason – to save his beloved father Charles (John Lithgow). Will he develops a drug that allows a damaged brain to repair itself. Gen-Sys, the pharmaceutical company for which he works, is only concerned about profit, so it rushes the formula to animal-testing, beginning with chimpanzees. When the drug shows violent side effects, the program is canceled and all the apes are put down. But Rodman continues the experiments on his own, secretly using Caesar, the orphaned offspring of a destroyed test subject. Turns out Caesar inherited high intelligence from his mother – because Rodman’s drug enhances the intelligence of normal, non-impaired brains. Rodman raises the chimp like a son, continuing the injections and teaching Caesar (Andy Serkis) to use his brain. Until, that is, a misunderstanding prompts Caesar to revert to animalistic mode and attack a neighbor, resulting in Caesar getting locked up at the local zoo. There, Caesar learns just what an animal Man can be. And, genius that he is, Caesar finds a way to use technology to turn the tables on his “masters.”
It’s tempting to lump this movie in with the anti-technology crowd and huff, “There are some things Man was not meant to know,” but the story doesn’t really go there. It’s not really against scientific achievement. It’s more a cautionary tale about one man’s hubris and another man’s greed, and how they combine with fear to ultimately bring about the end of the world — at least, as we know it. Science and the quest for knowledge are not demonized here; in fact, rigorous scientific protocols would have saved the world – if they had been followed.
A lot of story time is devoted to motivating Caesar’s rebellion; the script wastes no opportunity to make Caesar feel betrayed and abandoned and manipulated, and the petty, cruel sides of humanity are on full display. The point, obviously, is to make the audience cheer when (Spoiler Alert!) Caesar leads his rebellion, and chimps, gorillas and orangutans starts fighting back. However, I don’t know if it was a failure of storytelling or my own refusal to suspend disbelief, but I wasn’t rooting for the apes to win, and I kept wondering how the simian army managed to grow so large. It was also unclear to me how they were going to take over the world, but eventually… well, that would be telling! One of my favorite conceits of this screenplay is that two of Charlton Heston‘s most famous lines from the original 1968 Planet of the Apes are reproduced here, and the careful viewer will also recognize several names slipped in as Easter eggs for longtime fans. And be sure not to rush out as soon as the credits begin to roll, or you will miss a vital plot development that casts new light on the events of the movie.
The standout aspect of this film is Caesar. Caesar is completely computer-generated, but “his” performance was controlled by actor Serkis, whose face and gestures were tracked and used to guide Caesar’s movements. In this way, Caesar was actually “played” by a man pretending to be a chimp. And the movie benefited greatly from this conceit, because it enabled Caesar to behave… I don’t want to call it realistically, so let’s say he demonstrated the required amount of intelligence much better than a trained real chimp would have. The Oscar-winning special-effects folks at WETA built a mostly-flawless chimp (It’s impossible to get something as organic as hair correct and make it move realistically in every single shot.) to substitute over Serkis in the finished scenes, so for all intents and purposes, the movie co-stars a chimpanzee.
There’s been a lot of talk about nominating Serkis for an Oscar for his motion-capture performance here, but as big a Serkis booster as I am, this is not the film for that honor. He did deserve a nod for his amazing portrayal of Gollum in the final two Lord of the Rings films, The Two Towers and The Return of the King, but his work as Caesar, while clever, is not up to Sméagol standards. Still, the Academy Award is often a lifetime achievement award, so it’s possible Serkis could honored for his body of work. And I would have a hard time denying he deserves it.
GENERAL HOSPITAL and 127 Hours star Franco is admirably restrained as the misguided and overly idealistic scientist here, but Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto doesn’t get to do much as veterinarian Caroline, beyond look pretty and be supportive to Franco and nurturing to Caesar. Lithgow is very effective as Charles, who goes through the most changes of any (human) character. Tom Felton (Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy) and David Hewlett (STARGATE ATLANTIS’ Dr. McKay) make excellent impressions in small but key roles.
To be sure, this film is not up to the standards of the original Planet of the Apes, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is about as good as one can expect in the modern age of reduced and reconstituted remakes of sequels.