It’s number one at the box office and demonstrating staying power. Critical reception has been largely glowing. Sure, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a breathtaking film that combines spectacular technological achievement with a moving, character-driven story, and it should be a hit. But for the life of me, I still can’t believe that it is.
The very idea of a new Apes reboot was met with derision when first announced. The initial trailer was a dud resulting in widespread Internet outcries. The overlong, “of the”-riddled title sucks. (Seriously, what’s wrong with Planet of the Apes Rises? Solid title, no?) Star James Franco is suffering an overexposure backlash, particularly after the Oscars. Franco himself gave the ultimate red flag when he dismissed the film and its likelihood for success a month before it came out. Franco told Playboy that reshoots led him to believe the film would differ from the character-driven script, that critics would kill the film and that he doesn’t feel strongly about his role because it didn’t offer him a chance to explore his creativity. The interview didn’t augur well for the film. I was personally ready to nail this movie to the wall, and I know I wasn’t alone.
Well, we were wrong. The film’s a sensational surprise, and—even more shocking considering the detracting factors—a huge hit. So what led to its box office success? A combination of determinants, surely. Critics certainly did their part with warm, enthusiastic reviews such as Devin’s. But even extensive critical praise doesn’t translate into guaranteed commercial success. The winning partnership of the brilliant Andy Serkis and design team WETA had to help, especially after Lord of the Rings and King Kong. True, King Kong wasn’t a big success, but praise was unanimous for the effects and for Serkis’ portrayal of the notorious beast.
I think it also benefited Rise that the studio de-emphasized Franco’s involvement, with most promos featuring Caesar and the other apes. I think Franco gave a solid performance, but I absolutely wouldn’t have gone to see the film if that’s all I’d heard about it. The timing of the release also helps, with little else in the theaters to tempt viewers. The summer’s big hit films (Harry Potter, Captain America, etc.) have been out long enough to no longer offer stiff competition, and the most recent releases (Cowboys and Aliens, The Smurfs, The Change-Up) have been universally derided by critics. And Rise was relatively affordable to make. $90 million is nothing to sneeze at, but compared to most huge summer blockbusters, it’s not a scary sum. Fox will make that money back and then some with ease.
But I suspect there’s more at play here than the usual box office factors. The riots in England are one devastating example of worldwide disillusionment with the status quo. The disparity between the wealthy and the poor is growing ever wider, unemployment is at its peak, millions of people are denied their fundamental rights to live and work and marry as they choose. Citizens are done looking to their governments for a solution, because we’re all increasingly aware that no solution exists. Civil unrest is the natural result of civic frustration and disenfranchisement. Caesar doesn’t fight for power or special privileges or wealth. Caesar fights for freedom, the simple freedom to live his life as he chooses. In a global environment of growing discontent, is it any wonder that this film resonated with audiences?
Caesar is a hero to the powerless and the deprived. And when his adopted father offers him the chance to go home where he is loved and comfortable, Caesar opts to stay with the apes where he is needed. Caesar chooses action over complacency. Remember that. And remember, too, Caesar’s answer to Devin’s favorite line of the film: “Apes alone, weak. Apes together, strong.” That applies to humans, too, you know.
So why do you think Rise of the Planet of the Apes is such a hit? Did you expect it to be, or are you as surprised as I am?