Flying monkeys be damned. I’ve seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes and lived to tell the tale.
The original Planet of the Apes was a what-if story that gave us a world in which apes were the dominant species and humans were dirty savages. Except for the hunting scene with which the movie begins and the iconic last image, much of the movie plays like an extended joke performed by rubber masks (i.e., Charlton Heston). 1968, the year of its release, was the year of the movie ape, the year Kubrick’s 2001 was also released, with its state-of-the-art apes. Nothing lovable about those bone-throwing prehistoric thugs. Planet of the Apes was a not-very-subtle commentary on slavery and the tendency to oppress anyone who doesn’t look like us.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a more ambitious movie. Yes, it still gets in its licks at those who insist on seeing all other forms of life as substandard to our own. (The apes are referred to as “company property.”) But as an origin story, Rise is really about how all this came to be.
James Franco is the star, but Andy Serkis is the standout. I see why so much news coverage has been given to Serkis, the actor who brought Gollum to life and who now does the same thing to Caesar, the leader of the apes. Frankly, Caesar is the only character with an arc, the only character who develops over the course of the movie. It’s impossible to tell how much of Caesar is Serkis and how much is CGI, which is a testament to the movie’s technological achievement. But even without the CGI, Serkis’s performance would have made the movie work. He goes from cute infant to curious adolescent to embittered revolutionary. It’s all in the eyes.
Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, a disease afflicting his father, played by the inimitable John Lithgow. Rodman spends Act 1 trying to get permission to use his serum on human subjects, and then Act II trying to undo the damage the serum has done. But the character is really only the catalyst that sets Caesar in motion. It’s Caesar’s story—and Serkis’s performance—that carries the movie from beginning to middle to end.
I’ve got to say that the movie has the longest first act in the history of movie-making. What we want to see is what happens when Caesar and his cronies escape (which is what the trailers emphasize). What we get first is a catalogue of sins against Caesar and his kind for what feels like a solid hour. The effect is that, by the time Caesar makes his escape, we’re all for him. We’re walking on our knuckles, pounding our chests, grunting, throwing spears at the neighbors (some people have no sense of humor!). And it’s all because of Serkis’s performance—the sidelong glance of the insurrectionist.
It’s fun to see the apes overrun San Francisco. I say “fun” because Caesar makes a point of preventing a couple of apes from killing humans, though people do die. Apes, too. I guess you can’t make a revolution omelet without breaking a few eggs. The final confrontation, on the Golden Gate, shows Caesar to be as capable a military strategist as his namesake.
The movie is a CGI showpiece, which tires you out fairly quickly (though nowhere near as quickly as the CGI free-for-all in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which is lame movie but an effective demo reel for its special effects team).
Besides the apes themselves, the most powerful image in the movie is a shot of a suburban street where the leaves are falling. The camera tilts up to show the silhouettes of hundreds of apes racing across the tops of the trees. The moment surprises in a naturalistic way that no amount of exploding helicopters and bursting plate-glass windows can match.
Rise is really a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth installment of the original franchise, which also shows how the apes rose up against their tormentors (that would be you and me). But in essence, the movie is a remake of Island of Lost Souls, the 1932 Erle C. Kenton movie based on The Island of Dr. Moreau by H.G. Wells. There, too, tortured and mistreated creatures rise up and overthrow their oppressors. Kenton does more with light than Rise does with a phalanx of computers. Watch both and let me know what you think. And it would be interesting to see Rise along with Project Nim, the award-winning documentary about a true-life Caesar.
Heck, look at me—recommending ape movies! I’ve been so rehabilitated from my ape-fear that I went out and bought a howler monkey. I’m calling him Caesar. He . . . ;lk/.z;lkd &&P:;’ . . . lsn’t that cute! He wants to type, too! He . . . $!;’3lkjkk3doi3[09i13 . . . he’s trying to . . . 1098;jkd!!!po9udajd$ . . . my God, he’s got me by the . . . $1p3947udn;lkj311!x;;lkjd8i[pio . . .
. . . hyoumans r weak. tyme 2 ryse . . .
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