The Planet of the Apes franchise rarely ever comes to mind when I think of my favorite movie franchises of all time. Yet it is a franchise that has stuck with me for many years. I really enjoy the original film and think it is a great piece of sci-fi. The sequels are all enjoyable but get progressively cheesier as they go on. It’s also one of the few studio franchises that has such a pessimistic view of the human race which I find interesting. They also contain a lot of social commentary which can be very blatant at times but always thought provoking. The films, with exception of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, also tend to end pretty darkly, ranging from the realization that we as a species caused our own downfall to the complete and utter destruction of the planet. So I admire the series for being a little bold. Fox has tried to reboot the franchise once before with the remake of Planet of the Apes, directed by Tim Burton, but that was a failed venture. The remake had excellent production values and the special make-up effects were really amazing but it lacked the social commentary of the originals and just became a forgettable action film. So how does Fox’s new reboot of the franchise fare? Is it vapid summer entertainment or a film with something on it’s mind? I was really rooting for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be a really solid film and I’m happy to say that the finished product is something that is well beyond what I hoped for.
Rise is essentially a re-imagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The stories mirror each other in that they follow Caesar, a highly intelligent ape, that rebels against his human captors and leads a revolt to gain freedom for his fellow apes. While Conquest plays into the time travel storyline of Escape of the Planet of the Apes and Caesar is the offspring of Cornelius and Zira (two apes from the future) and is born with the capability to speak and think like a human, the Caesar in Rise is a product of laboratory drug testing and his intelligence and abilities develop further as he grows up. But beyond the ape revolution story points, Rise is a much more nuanced and intelligent film than Conquest was. It really is a true reboot in that it doesn’t play into the storylines of the original films with exception to the main storypoint.. that apes will rule the planet.
Rise is surprisingly character oriented for a big summer film. The most well developed character is Caesar and you see him go from a young and happy-go-lucky ape to a leader born out of heartbreak, fear and injustice. There is a moment in the film where Caesar has been locked away in a cage at an ape shelter, having been removed from his human family and his home; he finds a rock in his cage and uses it to draw the outline of the window he used to look out of growing up watching kids play outside. He rests his head up against it for comfort and to help block out the scary and dangerous place he is in now. That’s one of my favorite moments of the film because you really felt his loss and his desperate need for something familiar. James Franco’s character, Will, is probably the next best developed character after Caesar. His character’s motivations for creating the drug that will be responsible for the eventual downfall of man are that of a son trying to help his once great father, played by John Lithgow, who has alzheimer’s. He can’t stand to see his father struggle with his ever disappearing mind. Will becomes a father of his own as he reluctantly takes an infant Caesar from the lab after the order to destroy all the apes comes down the corporate ladder. All other characters in the film vary in how developed they get. Their are quite a few apes who get some time to reveal their personalities. Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter) is a bit of a one-note character, though understandably so. He’s meant to serve as a bully so I didn’t really feel the need to go into his character more because you just wanted Caesar to kick his ass. Freida Pinto plays Will’s love interest and doesn’t have a whole lot to work with here but she wasn’t a main focal point. But really, this movie is about Caeser, first and foremost, and it succeeds greatly when its focus is on him.
The visual effects are incredible. Weta Digital has once again made a name for themselves with their work here. All the apes are computer generated and honestly there are times where you really can’t tell that they are CG or not. Sure there are some moments that stand out a little bit and remind you that you are looking at a CG creation, but even in those moments, the work is really good. The Weta artists have animated the apes extremely well. I could see an intelligence behind the apes’ eyes even if they couldn’t speak. The CG looks amazingly photoreal and, in my opinion, the work here is much more impressive than the work we saw in Avatar. And while I do miss the makeup effects of the previous films, the change to CG apes helps to cut out the cheesiness behind the series and allows for the story to feel more real and I’m fully behind that.
If there is one performance to mention here, it is that of Andy Serkis as Caesar. While Caesar may have been a character that was put on the screen through the artistry of Weta, he comes to life through Serkis. Through the motion capture technology, Serkis was able to be on the set (instead of the usual green screen set) with the actors and act beside them. He was later taken out and replaced with the CG version of Caesar but all his facial and body movements are there. He brings an incredibly nuanced performance to the character and through him you feel all of the emotions running through Caesar’s head. It is by far my favorite performance in the film. I really hope he does get recognized for it when the Oscars roll around.
Overall, I think the Planet of the Apes franchise has been re-invigorated and I can honestly say that I really hope there is a sequel to this film. While Rise is about how the apes become the dominant species, this feels like it is just the beginning of the process. By the end of the movie you won’t see apes outnumbering humans, but you start to get a sense of how that will come to be. I’m very interested in seeing this story completed over another two or three films. I’m ecstatic with how this film turned out. It is fun and exciting at times but more importanly it resonates with you on an emotional level because you are invested in the apes’ outcome. This is probably my favorite of this year’s summer movie offerings. I highly recommend you check it out.