It would have been easy for me to dismiss The Rise of the Planet of the Apes. With an underwhelming trailer trying to breathe new life into a stagnant franchise and my disinterest in derivations of remakes, not to mention the film’s awfully choreographed title, I was primed to go bananas. Please excuse my ridiculously dumb indulgence there, but the film’s first impressions were lukewarm at best. Thankfully, I don’t dare to comment on a film in a negative light until I view it for myself. As you can probably deduce, Rise of…the Apes made an impact on me despite the uphill battle it faced. In a summer filled with tent pole films that should’ve been stuck in development hell, Apes was one of the few films that wonderfully melded technological wizardry with old-fashion story telling.
Considering the film’s title suggests a beast like upheaval, it should come as no surprise that the film’s narrative hinges on a story that balances between primate and man. We open up on Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist working hard to find a cure to Alzheimer’s, a disease that cripples his father, Charles (John Lithgow). Through his research, Will finds a potential cure and tests it respectfully on chimps. The effects of Will’s newly developed drug are unknown; at least those adverse in nature, but the results suggest he’s found a gold mine. More specifically, his primate subjects see a jump in IQ and brain reparations. Obviously, things are going well. That is until one of the apes, aptly named Bright Eyes, defensively attacks Will’s lab and shuts the experiment down. After exterminating Bright Eyes (and the other simian subjects), Will stumbles upon Bright Eye’s child, a little baby that has been miraculously hidden. Rodman takes the infant chimp in as his own and names it Caesar. Caesar is initially treated as a pet, but is quickly seen as a functioning human and integrated into Will’s family. Yet, as he grows, Caesar becomes self-aware about his status. He knows he’s evolved beyond his ancestors, but he also knows he doesn’t really seem to fit in the human world. His identity is in limbo.
With his increased awareness, Caesar begins to resent his status as Will’s family member. Love still exists between the two, but Caesar yearns for the unrelenting wild that boils in him. He needs to be free. Fortunately and tragically, Caesar’s quest for freedom is granted when his love for Will’s father blinds his judgment, thus validating his need to break from the life of a humanoid. Needless to say, Caesar unleashes a violent outburst that puts him in an ape sanctuary via the court of law. Delegated to be with his furry brethren, Caesar’s insecurities double. Angered that he can’t return home with Will, Cesar is hurled into a world where he doesn’t belong, at least from his fellow monkey’s perspective. That is until he uses his magnificent skill set and knowledge, his rage, and Will’s new powerful Alzheimer’s medicine to leverage himself into a power role amidst the apes. Finally, Caesar helps his kind realize the nature of their relationship with humans: they’re the pin cushion to the human’s needles, and it has to stop. From there we get an uprising that is both frightening and valiant. Through director Rupert Wyatt’s visual gusto, the apes lay claim to the land of humans. Considering our pre-existing knowledge of The Planet of the Apes franchise, we know exactly how the film plays out, but the film’s complexity and emotional core took me by surprise. The former is surprising for not only a summer film, but one that runs briskly at 105 minutes.
Dealing with issues on humanity, one’s place in society and layers of self-reflection, Rise of the Apes has a subtext that elevates the film’s terrific visuals and enthralling moments of action. This is even better demonstrated in the fact that there really isn’t a villain in all of this. Sure, Will’s interest in tampering with biology can be seen as maddening and selfish, but his efforts stem from genuine emotion. The same can be said for Caesar. His insurrection may seem violent and evil on the outset, but his emancipation is built on seeing his kind rise through captivity. Speaking of Caeser, the level of detail and introspection that follows his arc from dazed ape to fearless leader is awe-inspiring. Clearly the shades that make up Caesar’s character are well written, but his emotional expressiveness can be attributed to the unbelievable power of WETA technology and the terrific acting of Andy Serkis. The latter is probably the most significant. Using performance capture technology to render his performance, Serkis contorts his face and body in a way that would make most actors jealous. He delivers a level of depth that breaks through on every frame, which is all the more amazing considering how often special effects can overwhelm a performance. Thankfully, the special effects don’t overwhelm Serkis or the film’s huge emotional current.