I remember in 2011, when I was walking through the lobby of a movie theater, I saw the poster for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. A lot of thoughts went through my head. “Really, they’re rebooting Planet of the Apes? Again?” “Am I supposed to root for a monkey?” “Is this the dumbest movie title ever, or just top five?” Luckily, my skepticism was largely unfounded. However, before I explain how awesome this movie is: a brief aside about the title.
These movies have the dumbest titles. First of all, the word pair “of the” appears two times in a seven word sentence. Fifty-Seven percent of the films title is “of the.” There is an executive at Fox who came up with this title, and that executive deserves to be fired. Also, why does Dawn come after Rise? This isn’t the military, why are these movies rising before the dawn? And they aren’t even consistent; the third installment is called War for the Planet of the Apes. I’m over the moon that they aren’t using “of the” twice in a short phrase, but at least commit to something. Ok, rant over, lets talk about how awesome this movie is.
The shining star of this franchise is Andy Serkis as Caesar. This film being a prequel, we already know how its going to eventually end: apes one, humans zero. And even though this character is ushering in the genocide of the human race, Serkis plays Caesar with so much emotion and sincerity, you can’t help but sympathize with him. I don’t know how the hell he did it, but somehow Serkis got me to connect on an emotional level with a monkey. Motion capture or not, this is an incredible performance. I’d even go as far as to say that Caesar is the single greatest MoCap character ever put to screen.
But of course, we can’t talk about bringing Caesar to life without discussing the incredible visual effects work done by Weta. Rewatching this, I was blown away not only by Caesar, but by how so many of the apes have a distinctive look and a clear, developed visual character. This movie is a great example of how to properly utilize CGI, It’s not just spectacle for spectacles sake. The effects in this film help tell the story, not just try and impress or distract. Rewatching it this many years later, some of the uncanny valley cracks start showing, but I didn’t care. I was able to suspend my disbelief when things didn’t look quite perfect, because where the visuals failed, the emotion of those under the digital makeup kept me engaged.
The story follows the three-act format to a tee, but it does this incredible shift with each subsequent act. Most blockbusters just have a bunch of exposition, separated by some action sequences to signal our journey forward. But Rise does something different, it changes the genre every act, and it does so effectively. The first act is essentially a family film, a story about a boy and his dog. We meet our human protagonist, use some techno-bable to set up the world, and then we’re introduced to our primate hero. When the second act comes, so does the prison break genre. This is a huge tonal shift, but its ushered in through character choices that make sense. And then finally, the third act is when the action blockbuster pitched in the trailers kicks into overdrive.
What I find so interesting, is how each act tell’s its own vignette. Act one shows that Caesar doesn’t belong to the world of man or animal, but rather somewhere in between. Act two shows Caesar’s transformation from bullied new comer to a determined leader. And finally act three shows us the struggle of a groups liberation and desire to set their own rules. To highlight just how well executed these narrative shifts are, contrast two action set pieces on opposite ends of the film’s runtime. Towards the beginning of the movie, Caesar’s mother is gunned down in the middle of the office’s that developed the simian wonder-drug. A few windows are broken, and only two shots are fired, but it still feels exciting and tense for the setting. Fast forward to the end of the movie, when those same offices are full of hyper-intelligent apes that decimate the place. The Bright Eyes chase sequence in the beginning simply doesn’t work at the end of the film. And if it had started with those chimps about to go ape, we wouldn’t have had the emotional connection necessary to believe it.
As much as I laud over the performance Serkis and Caesar, there isn’t much else on the acting or character front. Brian Cox and Tom Felton play cartoonishly evil bad guys, but David Oyelowo takes the cake for over-the-top antagonist. Not because he isn’t a great actor, but watching him attempt some of this dialogue is painful (at one point, he literally says “I run a business, not a petting zoo”). John Lithgow is serviceable, even though he isn’t given much more than “be confused,” and Freida Pinto is charming, but criminally underused in her role.
That brings us to James Franco. I don’t know what he’s doing in this movie. His line delivery and facial expressions are all over the place, it’s like he is being told what to do exactly as he’s supposed to do it. It didn’t ever feel like a character, it just felt like watching James Franco. Yet still, for some reason I connected with him and could understand his drive to save his father and surrogate son. I still don’t know if Franco is a good actor, but he did his job and he was clearly having fun. Although, I suppose I can’t be too hard on any of the actors here. Look up the behind the scenes footage, and you’ll see that they’re acting opposite a grown man in a leotard covered with tennis balls pretending to be a chimp. That they were able to get through a take with a straight face is a feat all in its own.
Upon my most recent viewing, I kept thinking myself “this movie has no idea how good it is.” It seems clear that the studio just wanted to get another reboot going, and didn’t think this would be anything more than the average summer romp that brings back its budget. But by landing the duo of director Rupert Wyatt and powerhouse Andy Serkis, this movie became so much more than anyone could have expected. It’s not a gripping drama, and it’s not one of the best movies of the decade, but it’s absolutely a cut about the average reboot we’re so often served.
Rating: 3.8 – Really Good