SUB-GENRES: Thriller / Drama / Action
DIRECTED BY: Rupert Wyatt
WRITTEN BY: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver; Based on a novel by Pierre Boulle
PEW PEW: This film is insanely well-rounded, with more than enough action to satisfy ape fans.
CAT FOOD: The Planet of the Apes film series frequently dips its pen into the ink of social commentary and liberally applies it to in both the background and foreground of the pictures. Returning the franchise to its former glory, this one tackles human and animal rights, ethics and morality, and more.
There was no shortage of science fiction novels being published in the fifties and sixties, and many of them had powerful things to say about the world around their authors. While some of these novels went on to be adapted into film, many of them were too ambitious or bizarre to even attempt a faithful re-imagining. When French author Pierre Boulle (famous for The Bridge On the River Kwai) published La Planète des Singes (Monkey Planet) in 1963, it’s hard to believe anyone could picture a successful film coming out of it, with the limited production tools of the era, at least.
But blow me down, they did it. La Planète des Singes, a novel about a journalist’s experience on a distant planet populated by intelligent apes who wore suits and drove cars, and treated the less advanced humans like animals, went on to spawn eight feature films (with a ninth on the way next year), a live-action television series, a cartoon series, and a clandestine merchandising campaign that predates Star Wars’. So pull up a seat, cause over the next eight days, we’re going to talk about Planet of the Apes, easily one of the most profound and important science fiction film series’ in the genre’s rich history.
Almost thirty years after the end of the classic apes series (Planet of the Apes , Beneath the Planet of the Apes , Escape from the Planet of the Apes , Conquest of the Planet of the Apes , and Battle for the Planet of the Apes ), a slipshod attempt at a remake was made, resulting in 2001’s Planet of the Apes. But I’ve already had my rant about that one. Needless to say, it was good that they waited a further ten years to bring us another ape movie… and better yet, one completely unrelated to that 2001: An Ape Atrocity.
Rather than a sequel or another attempt at a remake, the writers of the latest episodes in the apes franchise chose to reboot the series. In this way, the Planet of the Apes franchise can be broken down into its individual parts and reconstructed in a way that retains its most important aspects, while also telling a brand new story. Emerging like a white knight to rectify the sins of the past, Rise of the Planet of the Apes blew me away in 2011.
In a bold move that allows for the maximum amount of improvement on even the classic series, the writers chose to make the new series an origin story. Drawing influence from 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (itself an origin story within the original series), Rise does not retread anything, but instead draws many parallels, lifting some of the best concepts from said film and applying them to a new narrative where, unburdened by any connected films, they fit 100% better.
As in Conquest, the new story is built around Caesar, a chimpanzee unexpectedly born to a mother who was exposed to a drug, a controlled virus called ALZ-112, which was meant to cure Alzheimer’s disease. After the unfortunate demise of the mother chimp, Will Rodman, the drug’s creator, is forced to take the infant Caesar home to live with him and his father, who suffers from the very disease Will is trying to cure. As Caesar grows, it soon becomes apparent that the chimp was born with the ALZ in his system, and that it has gifted him with human brain function, allowing him to develop at an astronomical rate.
As Caesar develops into a young adult, he becomes fiercely intelligent but frustrated by a life in which he sees himself as being nothing more than Will’s pet. After an incident involving Will’s neighbour, it becomes necessary to remove Caesar from his home and put him in an ape sanctuary where he must learn not only to deal with other apes, but to ultimately save them from their cruel human keepers. When a successful batch of the ALZ called ALZ-113 is manufactured in vapour form, Caesar uses it to make his fellow apes smart and finds himself preparing for an all out rebellion against the humans.
At first, having seen Conquest, I was afraid this movie was going to focus on a gory uprising featuring many graphic deaths (think Dawn of the Dead with apes), but I was pleasantly surprised to find that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really more of a psychiatric profile of Caesar, the ape that rose up to challenge the human system and their unethical treatment of supposedly lower lifeforms. It’s very tasteful, far from graphic, and, when looking at the big picture, the uprising really is a small part of the movie, with the bulk of its brilliant narrative focusing on the development of Caesar’s character — this is what good writing is all about.
The story is a charming one. Caesar’s time with Will leaves an indelible impression of the good humans are capable of, and it’s hard not to be moved when he is torn away from his comfortable life with his human masters and thrust into a world of ape aggression and cruelty at the hands of his new human masters. I have noted, in my many years reading and watching stories, that the best hero stories involve characters who are at first pampered and living a life where their hero qualities are vestigial at best. The hero then must go through a great loss that strips him of his comforts and leaves him with nothing, allowing the hero to rise within him. Paul Atreides from Dune comes to mind, for example. The sleeper has awakened.
Caesar’s story is that kind of story. It hurts to watch as he clings to his old life for as long as possible, even going so far as to draw his favourite window on the wall of his cell and pretending he can hear the sounds of Will’s neighbourhood through it — but when Caesar is finally pushed, he becomes a morally upright titan worthy of centring an entire franchise on.
Unlike the 2001 remake, which used references to the source material with no regard for sanctity, Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes many references, some subtle and some quite obvious, that are intelligently employed and very respectful to the dignity of the 1968 classic. Obvious examples include the Caesar character, his use of the word NO when he finally speaks (which, spoken as if through a chimp’s voice box, is exceptionally dramatic) and a few strategically placed quotes from the original film (the closest thing to cheese you’ll find here). More subtle nods include characters named after the original’s characters and actors. For heaven’s sake, there’s even an ultra cool orangutan named after brilliant Dr. Zaius actor Maurice Evans!
Also of note is that the film makes mention of a space project called Icarus that goes missing on its way to Mars. If the franchise sees fit, I suppose one day we might meet those astronauts when they crash land back on this planet to find it ruled by Caesar’s descendants.
Now, let’s talk casting. Rise of the Planet of the Apes upholds the series staple of employing fantastically gifted actors to portray its memorable characters. In the lead is Andy Serkis, who, through the magic of motion capture technology, portrays Caesar. Through playing King Kong and Lord of the Rings’ Gollum, Andy Serkis has more than proven that he’s the king of motion capture. The amount of subtle expression and pure feeling he put into every single one of Caesar’s gestures is beyond astounding. He took what Roddy McDowall did for the character and magnified it for a new era of special effects-enhanced storytelling.
Support for his character comes from James Franco, who is one of the more versatile young actors on the market today. The guy is funny as hell, but he’s also proven that he can be serious too, and likeable while he’s at it. His performance as the compassionate Will Rodman is impressive to say the least. His Alzheimer’s-addled father is played masterfully by the great John Lithgow, who flip-flops between being a warm and intelligent man to a dementia-stricken, confused, and sometimes incredibly angry victim. He shows the ravages of the horrible disease frighteningly well. Completing a rough family unit is the extremely talented and ridiculously gorgeous Freida Pinto as Will’s girlfriend, Caroline. Had the film shown more of Caesar’s time growing up, I’m sure we would have seen more of her character’s worth. It’s one of my only gripes that she’s not quite used to her potential.
On the other side of things, the roster of antagonists is rather subtle. Caesar’s earliest foe is Will’s crusty neighbour, played by David Hewlett. Tom Felton plays Dodge Landon (get it?), who is an immediate chafe for Caesar, and Brian Cox plays his father, John Landon, who runs the ape sanctuary where Caesar is imprisoned. Subtler still is David Oyelowo’s Jacobs, who is responsible for funding the ALZ drug and for testing on defenseless apes and sending many to their deaths. His part in it is mostly business, but it’s still a form of evil that is well represented here. Oyelowo is terrific in the role, displaying dubious morality and shrewd disinterest but also lighting up when he smells a good business venture.
While Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t contain quite as many levels of social commentary as the original series did, the film fixates heavily on just a few major issues. Rather than stumble through cliche country and clumsily hurl out a bunch of platitudes like the 2001 film, this one brilliantly winds commentary on those few issues throughout an innocuous but gripping and thoroughly engaging narrative.
It’s not the classic Planet of the Apes, but this movie does the smart thing by avoiding any real form of re-enactment. It instead develops its own lore that has classic spirit enough to pull apes fans in, and new compelling concepts fertile enough to make us fall in love with an all new angle.