Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Film review by: Witney Seibold
Rupert Wyatt‘s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” would have been a lot more interesting had it severed itself from any other mythology having to do with “Planet of the Apes.” As far as I can tell, this film falls somewhere in between “Escape from the Planet of the apes (1971) and “Conquest of Planet of the Apes” (1972), but is also yet another retcon of a classic, essentially recasting the events of “Conquest” in a new light. Were we to take every Apes film as cannon, the chronological order I can best come up with is this: “Beneath,” “Rise,” “Conquest,” Tim Burton, “Battle,” the original, “Beneath.” Or, shortly, 3, 7, 4, 6, 5, 1, 2. Had “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” merely been entitled “Angry Monkeys,” we would have had one of the silliest, stone-faced sci-fi thrillers in years.
This is a film that, at times, becomes so wonderfully campy, that I am half tempted to give a mayhem tally, and leave it at that. And while there was a chimp on horseback, leading an angry revolt of super-intelligent apes against a wall of San Francisco policemen, there wasn’t quite enough silliness to push the film into outright ridiculous territory. There was one scene in which a gorilla jumped from a bridge onto a helicopter. Had that gorilla taken control of the helicopter, and started firing guns into the crowd, that probably would have done it.
There are some humans in the film, but they’re hardly very interesting. James Franco plays a geneticist named Will who is searching for a cure to his father’s Alzheimer’s. He is doing so by testing brain-growth drugs on chimps. The last time we saw a movie scientist trying to cure Alzheimer’s disease, they were injecting a similar drug into sharks in “Deep Blue Sea.” If these films are any precedent, scientists need to stop their work on Alzheimer’s Disease immediately, as their research will only lead to an army of ultra-intelligent animals that want to kill people. Anyway, Will has a success in a chimp named Bright Eyes (reference to the first “Apes”), who, at an inopportune moment, goes berserk, and is gunned down in front of the people who would give Will a grant. Bright Eyes had a baby, though, which Will spirits off to his home for further tests. This baby chimp, whom Will named Caesar (reference to “Conquest”) proves that it has natural super-intelligence, and, over the course of a several-year montage, grows from a cute li’l creature to a hairy, sulky silent type that stays in his room all day. He essentially becomes a teenage boy. Over the course of that same montage, Will manages to cure his father (John Lithgow). Will also starts living with the pretty and completely personality-free Caroline (Frieda Pinto), whom I only mention incidentally; she has little bearing on the story.
It’s not until Caesar, who injures a human defending Lithgow from a would-be assailant, goes to prison that “Rise” really kicks into gear. The entire second act of the film takes place in a special ape prison, where Caesar learns how superior he is to the other apes, and how poorly apes are treated by humans, in particular, the abusive guard played the Tom Felton (who gets to make the dialogue references to the original “Apes,” including the damned dirty ape line and the madhouse line). What we begin to see is a prison film, wherein Caesar observes the established hierarchy, grows his sense of resentment, takes over as the prison’s top banana, and recruits the old boss, a bitter gorilla, and an intelligent orangutan as his enforcers. The entire prison sequence is almost indistinguishable from any prison movie, albeit there are silent, CGI apes in each shot. There are scenes where Caesar scopes out the prison’s weaknesses, makes note of the guard’s rounds, and a scheme to get the apes to co-operate using cookies. There are even scenes where Caesar and the orangutan communicate with sign language, complete with subtitles. Caesar inevitably breaks out, finds some canisters of smart gas, and makes all the apes intelligent, just in time for the third-act climax.
The smart gas also, curiously, makes Caesar grow. In the midle of the film, he’s an average chimp of about 4 feet. By the film’s end, he’s standing tall at a broad-shouldered 5’9″ Hm…
Caesar was created using the same motion-capture technology used in “Avatar,” and the effects are really amazing. Andy Serkis, who has famously played other motion-capture characters in “Lord of the Rings” and the 2005 version of “King Kong,” does a splendid job of giving Caesar good ape movements, although it’s a bit curious why a professional mime or dancer wasn’t hired for such a role. I guess Serkis is a household name at this point, provided your household is populated by nerds.
As it stands, “Rise” teeters on camp, but stands up strangely well as a taut and well-made feature. The ending of the film doesn’t really tie into the famous “You blew it all up!” ending of the original “Apes,” but if an eighth “Apes” film is ever made, maybe it’ll tie into that. Or perhaps I’m just preoccupied with canon in a universe that is hellbent on redefinition.