Rise of the Planet of the Apes has performances of incredible subtlety, depth and humanity. It just turns out that none of them come from humans. As befitting the latest entry in this five decade old franchise, it’s the apes who are the heart and soul of the film, and it’s particularly the work of Andy Serkis that elevates the movie from something more than a divertingly smart summer blockbuster. It’s a divertingly smart summer blockbuster with a real emotional core, that rarest of all beasts.
The movie is a clean reboot of the famous franchise; while there are nods to the original (a spacecraft named the Icarus is launched and lost during the events of the film), director Rupert Wyatt, working from a script credited to Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, treats this story as its own story. And while there is a tag that opens the door for more Apes films, and for a world that looks like the one Charlton Heston discovered in the original, the ending of Rise of the Planet of the Apes feels like the ending of a story, not like a prologue or a first chapter. In a world where every other movie is simply a set-up for another movie there’s a refreshing quality to that.
While Rise is a summer blockbuster it would be a disservice to make it seem like an action film. There are about three action sequences - an opening sequence where apes are trapped in the jungle for scientific testing, an action sequence where Caesar, the lead ape, fights with an alpha male in an ape sanctuary and then finally the extended finale, which has been spoiled to all hell by Fox in trailers and clips. But because this isn’t exactly an action film the spoiling doesn’t matter; by the time the third act action rolls around you are fully and completely invested in the apes as characters and in their cause, so it’s a thrilling and rousing sequence.
Rise is an interesting film in that it doesn’t present a huge amount of explicit cruelty towards the apes. It proceeds from the assumption that keeping chimps in cages and experimenting on them is a bad thing, without showing some sort of grueling torture. That could be an attempt to maintain a PG-13, but I like the idea that this is a movie made for a modern age where we are a little more advanced, where we accept the idea that maybe we should be kind of nicer to the animals around us.
Andy Serkis plays Caesar, an ape whose mother was a test subject for an Alzheimer’s cure. The genetic modification from the cure turns out to be inherited, but as Caesar is starting off life with healthy brain tissue the effects of the drug are to increase his intelligence. Raised hidden from the lab where he was born, like a hairy Moses, Caesar is incredibly smart, and only gets smarter as he gets older.
He lives with Will Rodman, played by James Franco, the scientist pioneering this treatment. Will’s dad, played by John Lithgow, suffers from Alzheimer’s, and the three make an unlikely but sweet family unit. Still, while Caesar very much belongs in the Rodman house he begins to understand that he’s not like the children he sees playing outside his window. And when Will takes him out in public, to the redwoods where Caesar gets to climb free, the ape has to wear a collar. Caesar’s increased intelligence makes him able to solve problems and communicate in complex sign language, but it also gives him a self-awareness where he begins to wonder just what he is, and where he fits in the world.
Eventually Caesar’s problems come to a head, and while protecting a dazed and confused Lithgow he injures a neighbor. Caesar is sent to an ape sanctuary where he discovers that if he didn’t belong among humans he doesn’t much belong among apes either. Slowly hardened by the nastiness of the sanctuary’s jailers and his perceived abandonment by Will, Caesar decides that he needs to take matters into his own hands.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes plays like a biopic of a freedom fighter. Caesar wants the same rights as any sentient being; unlike Caesar from Conquest of the Planet of the Apes this ape isn’t looking to take over or get revenge, he just wants to be free. It’s that noble goal that really allows us to root for him. Caesar doesn’t want a planet of the apes, he just wants a place where he can be himself and not be abused or confined or mistrusted.
The arc of the character, from trusting baby to hardened battle leader, is only possible because of the combined work of Andy Serkis and WETA. Serkis’ performance is, no hyperbole, incredible. Much of what he does is non-verbal, and his work through posture and subtle facial movements is stunning. There is never a moment in the movie where you wonder what is going through Caesar’s mind. It truly is stunning work and a landmark in how actors and digital technicians can come together to create something incredible. Caesar isn’t a showy creation - it doesn’t take long for you to simply forget he’s a CGI skin painted over a human actor and just accept him as a character - and that’s what the point of special FX should be. There’s certainly a time to dazzle, but great FX work in service of story and character.
There’s no way to overpraise what Serkis does here, and his greatness is all the more evident when compared to the frankly bad acting surrounding him. James Franco often seems like he’s getting early onset Alzheimer’s himself, slurring words and seeming half interested in the surroundings. Freido Pinto, playing his girlfriend, is one of the most egregiously useless actors I have ever seen in a movie. I wouldn’t remove the character, as Franco’s happiness with her is a key aspect of Caesar’s understanding of his own loneliness, but I can’t understand how a performance as wooden and slight as hers ended up in a movie where most other elements are finely crafted.
This is a movie where the human element is a distraction at best, and by the second act the people begin to really fall out of the film - which audiences welcome. But this is the movie’s big handicap; with the right actors doing the right work alongside Serkis and the cadre of highly talented and expressive performance capture actors, Rise could have been a great film. Instead it ends up being a very good film with absolute greatness contained within it.
Some of the greatness within it comes from director Rupert Wyatt. He creates some truly amazing imagery; there’s a passage of time sequence where Caesar capers through the redwoods that is gorgeous, and many of the ape mayhem sequences are incredible. There’s one great scene where a band of rampaging apes swing through the trees above a suburban neighborhood, causing a rain of green leaves on the people below. It’s Spielbergian in its melding of beauty and menace.
Where Wyatt really shines, though, is in the non-verbal ape scenes. He’s a natural visual storyteller, and he creates a complete world of this ape prison, with full characters, effortlessly. Obviously much of the credit must go to the performance capture work, but Wyatt simply knows how to tell a story. What’s more incredible is that there’s a complexity to the story, a throughline of how Caesar comes to understand the ape prison and then slowly take over the ape prison, that he gets across with gorgeous simplicity. While the human scenes include all sorts of ugly exposition these ape scenes flow.
That flow comes in handy in the final rampage. The apes don’t just go wild, they use tactics, and Wyatt is able to make us understand their maneuvers with clear geography and action choreography. The final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is thrilling, and when Caesar’s battle plan came together I was unable to stifle a cheer. It’s rousing stuff.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable film hamstrung by a few bad elements. The technology and performances that bring the apes to life make the film a must-see for any modern movie fan, but it’s the emotion and humanity of Caesar’s story that makes the film a must-see for any movie fan at all. There was always a danger of the film being silly, but it avoids that trap, instead becoming an absorbing, exciting and extraordinary work of blockbuster entertainment with something to say. Cornelius and friends would be proud.