I have a confession. I love movies where animals attack humans. I’ve seen Anaconda and several of its sequels. Deep Blue Sea has become one of my most viewed movies through its seemingly constant play on the SyFy channel. There’s just something about seeing dumb people get eaten by an animal, scientifically screwed-around-with or not, that appeals to me. It’s like the animals are getting back at the humans for having such better resources and doing absolutely nothing with them. And the cool death scenes help, too. When the trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the prequel to the 1968 classic combo of cheesy acting and cheesier makeup, came out I got a bit excited. There’s a cool story to tell detailing how the apes went from our science test subject to ruling the world. Unlike some prequels and origin stories, this one had the potential to give us some new ideas within the universe. Whether director Rupert Wyatt was up to telling it, though, remained to be seen.
It doesn’t take a genetically modified ape to tell you that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie. It’s fun, exciting, and even surprisingly moving. As the title implies, this is a movie about the genesis of the new world order where apes are the ruling species, not humans. The movie begins by focusing on James Franco‘s scientist character as he tries to develop a cure to Alzheimer’s (a well worn trope in the animals-killing-people genre; see: Deep Blue Sea) by testing his cure on chimps in a lab. He grows attached to one baby chimp whom he takes home and begins to raise as if he were a human child. The home life stuff sets up an interesting father-son relationship triangle as Franco’s dad – admirably played by John Lithgow – suffers from the very disease his son is trying to find a cure for and Franco must take care of him along with his adopted son, Caesar the chimp. The first section of the movie is a kind of coming of age story for Caesar and it is done quite well as he struggles to reconcile his super-powered chimp mind with the animal instincts he possesses. Of course, none of this emotional storytelling would be possible were it not for the performance capture technology and Andy Serkis‘ fantastic ability to be physically expressive. This is a movie that relies upon a wordless performance by an actor who is replaced digitally by a chimpanzee. If the effects didn’t work it would be laughable. But the technology is there and Serkis gives one hell of a show. If there is any justice in the world he will be recognized come award season for the nuance with which he plays Caesar. There’s a shot at the end of the first act as we see Caesar rising through the Redwoods at Muir Woods and as he does so time moves on, season to season, as Caesar ages and grows up. It’s an astounding shot, fluid and beautiful, one that would feel right at home in The Tree of Life if The Tree of Life were about an ape uprising.
Of course, everything is not fine and dandy at home for Caesar and company. After an incident with a neighbor Caesar is sent to an ape preserve on the outskirts of San Francisco and is tortured by the people running it. There’s a small problem with the movie here because these people, lead by Brian Cox and Tom Felton, are purely evil. There’s no effort to make them anything other than a glorified plot device, the thing which provokes Caesar to begin the revolution which gives the film its title. Felton, particularly, just gives his constant Malfoy sneer and when he is called to give perhaps the defining line of the franchise it is powerful only because of the baggage the audience carries into the movie, not the performance itself. This section, however, also gives us more time with Caesar. It’s here where we realize he is the true main character of the film and his journey from abandoned kid to leader of the ape rebellion is fun to see. The two non-chimp apes trapped in the preserve are fun, too. The orangutan and gorilla give the film a bit of diversity and the gorilla in particular is kind of horrifying. The apes soon escape and begin a pilgrimage to Muir Woods. This leads to the only real big action scene in the film. There are a lot of fun little details in this section, from Caesar riding a police horse to the too-often-spoiled-in-commercials shot of a gorilla jumping towards a helicopter. This is the kind of destruction I wanted to see and it mostly delivers. My only problem is that the apes are generally pacifists. The film comes up with other ways to get all the humans to die but the apes do very little killing of their own. Only the truly evil people meet their ends at the hands of the apes. I guess this has something to do with the fact that the movie is rated PG-13 and that we’re supposed to be identifying with the apes as heroes at this point but I was still a little disappointed. That said, what happens in the big fight scene is really cool to see. The CGI is, once again, stunning.
The script has a few key shoutouts to the original film and most of them are done well and integrated well enough to not distract from the film too much. There is one element of the original films which is shown here and executed very well. It’s satisfying on both the plot and emotional levels of the movie but I won’t spoil it for you as most of the delight is in the telling. The original film makes some political allegories, as science fiction stories are wont to do, and this one follows suit, to some degree. The idea of being cautious with animal testing is not wholly original or even all that compelling in the course of this movie. What is compelling, though, is the story of Caesar. It’s more of a character piece, really, than a wide ranging metaphor and it is better for it. The rise of Caesar is well told and the real heart of the film. It’s not going to be one of my favorite movies of all time but it is really good. It’s a well-directed, smart, fun sci-fi movie and that’s all you can ask for.