Directed by Rupert Wyatt
The original Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall still remains one of the best epic science fiction films of all time. It’s had its share of sequels and spin-offs since being released in 1968 (five movies and two television series, not to mention the Tim Burton reboot so many of us fans would like to forget even existed), proving that no matter how much time passes, compelling storytelling will endure.
Here we are now 43 years after the release of the first film, and 20th Century Fox is rebooting the franchise once again with director Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which sets out to give audiences a new spin on the origin story of the Apes franchise by following revolutionary chimpanzee Caesar as he breaks free from the human world he’s born into, breathing new life into the long-dormant property and finally giving fans the modern Apes movie we’ve been longing for ever since Burton’s debacle was released ten years ago.
If you’re one of the purists who follow every aspect of the origin story established in the original Apes franchise, Rise will require you to put some of that behind you. Here we are introduced to Caesar (Serkis), the leader of the primate uprising, as the progeny of Chimp #9 (also known as “Bright Eyes,” a shout-out to original Apes), who is captured in a remote jungle to be used in Dr. Will Rodman (Franco)’s simian-stage testing of a potential neuro-regenerative cure for Alzheimer’s for medical developer GenSys.
When Chimp #9 is shot dead after running amok in the testing facility, the head of GenSys orders the rest of the apes to be put down and terminates Rodman’s program. But once Will discovers Bright Eyes’ baby hiding under a table and realizes that’s the real reason she was acting out (not due to medical side effects of the testing), he’s left with the burden of responsibility for the baby chimp. Rather than letting Bright Eyes’ baby suffer the same fate as his mother, Will takes the infant primate home with him until he can figure out what to do with it. But as soon as he gets home, Will’s father, Charles (Lithgow), who struggles with the debilitating effects of dementia, becomes immediately attached to the chimp and names him Caesar in honor of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.
Will notices from the start that there is something remarkable about Caesar- he exhibits heightened intelligence and reasoning skills mostly due to the effects of the medical treatment being passed onto him while still in the womb. Over time Caesar begins to flourish, and once Will sees what the drug can do, he decides to administer it to Charles on the DL from GenSys in a desperate attempt to save both his father and years of research he’s done for the company in searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s. Remarkably, Charles responds to Will’s treatments, and even if it is for a short time, it seems like all is right in Will’s world- Charles’ rebound from dementia is almost instantaneous, and he’s finding himself enjoying his father-son relationship with Caesar.
As we all know, the good times always have to end, and soon Will’s faced with potentially losing both his father and Caesar after a horrific incident plays out where the chimp attacks a neighbor in an effort to protect Charles, and Caesar is sent to live at a primate sanctuary in San Bruno managed by the unscrupulous John Landon (Cox) and his douchebag of a son, Dodge (Felton, once again playing a villain). Once Caesar is left at San Bruno, he begins to realize that the human race isn’t all it’s cracked up to be without Will around to protect him. Caesar decides he’s done taking orders and starts putting together a plan to rally not only all the primates at San Bruno but other primates located all over the San Francisco area. And so begins the actual Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
From there the movie’s pace gets a boost, and Caesar and his pals are off to show the humans just why they’re done being considered “second-class citizens.” There’s a lot of mayhem once the primates are on the loose that builds to an epic showdown between law enforcement officials and the primates on the Golden Gate Bridge which is nothing short of a spectacular feast for the eyes.
There are also a few surprises in the film’s third act that I would never dream of giving away for our readers, but suffice to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is hands-down the best film of the franchise since 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (although I still enjoy 1973’s Battle immensely, Conquest is by far a stronger film) and is the kind of film we should have gotten back in 2001 when Burton took a crack at the franchise.
Rise definitely takes some liberties with the mythology established in its predecessors. Writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver decide to ignore the time travel-based explanation for the apes’ rise that was established in 1971’s Escape from the Planet of the Apes as well as reinventing the origin story for Caesar, who was originally introduced as the offspring of Cornelius and Zira in Escape and became the leader of the ape uprising in Conquest. Being such a huge Apes fan, I was completely okay with Jaffa and Silver taking these liberties because the results were so damn entertaining and engrossing to watch as they unfolded.
Serkis’ portrayal of revolutionary chimp Caesar is truly a landmark performance that should hopefully garner the performance-capture actor some attention for his work. For years Serkis has been overlooked in his performance-capture work because the sticking point was that he actually needed to be the character we see on the screen, and in Rise WETA finally nailed down the technology allowing Serkis to perform his role alongside Franco, Lithgow and the rest of the human characters in the film so the Academy’s excuses are no longer valid.
Hands down, Serkis deserves to take home some Oscar gold next year for his work in Rise because I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like what he delivers in this film. Remarkable and poignant don’t even begin to describe it. It’s something that needs to be seen to be believed.
If I have any issues with the film at all it is that the first act is a bit rushed, which leaves very little time for Franco to really make an impression. Lithgow is spot-on as usual (Does that guy ever give a bad performance? Not in my book!), and both Cox and Felton are great as the antagonists. Pinto left a very small impression on me as well, but I’m willing to overlook that because this move is more about Caesar than it is about the humans. Clearly, director Wyatt understood what fans want to see – apes taking over – so he doesn’t do much in taking his time establishing his human characters at the beginning of Rise.
However, whatever may be lacking in the character development department, Wyatt makes up for with some spectacular action sequences as well as some pretty emotional moments among Will, Charles and Caesar because for as much as the story is about the destructive results of humans playing with the natural order of things, at the end of the day Rise of the Planet of the Apes is also a story about the relationships between fathers and sons and what it means to have to let go once they’re no longer part of your world. So while there is plenty of action in Rise, you may just need to have a Kleenex or two on you just in case because things do get emotional from time to time.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the antidote to the bloated summer blockbusters that have been taking over our multiplexes these last several months. The film was definitely made with Planet of the Apes fans in mind, but there is still a lot to be enjoyed for the uninitiated audiences out there. Rise is a masterfully crafted sci-fi/horror adventure that has the power to draw you in with both a breathtaking action story as well as the heartfelt characters at the core, making it one of the strongest and most intelligent popcorn flicks of the year.
4 1/2 out of 5