Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

A movie buff might be excused for growing a bit cynical in recent years. Hollywood has betrayed a strong reluctance to greenlight anything even approaching an original idea, particularly when it comes to big-budget blockbusters (or films that aspire to be blockbusters). Their audience hasn’t helped: of the 20 most successful films at the 2011 American box office, 17 are sequels, remakes, reboots, spin-offs, or Marvel superhero adaptations. (For the record: the three remaining top 20 films that year were an animated film made by a popular studio and two comedies that were comparatively cheap to produce and unexpectedly grew into massive hits; the 2011 international box office looks almost identical.) So regardless of quality, these retread films tend to make money. It’s no wonder that studios keep producing them. And it’s not that films related to a previously-established movie universe are necessarily automatically low quality, but the studios can only develop so many pictures at once, and if their slate is full of derivations, there’s not much room for originality.

So when 20th Century Fox announced they were trying their hand at another Planet of the Apes film, many people, me included, were skeptical. In the decade before that, Fox under its CEO Tom Rothman had made an unfortunate, and possibly unfair, name for itself as the greediest and most short-sighted of the major studios when it came to genre films. There was little reason to assume that a new Apes flick would be anything but a blatant cash-grab, making a quick buck by coasting on vague name recognition. The last big-screen sequel was released in 1973, and Tim Burton’s executive-meddled 2001 remake was ill received and still fresh in many people’s minds. There was neither a narrative need nor any kind of public desire for a new entry into that franchise.

Considering all that, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite the clumsy title, is an unexpected triumph. It is still not a necessary film, but that was always a given. But I think the people who made it gave a damn, and it shows on screen. Story-wise, they wisely decided not to go to the same well a third time and skipped the probably (ask Burton) not remarkable first Apes movie. Instead, they took the basic premise of the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), and tried to adapt it to modern times and modern technology without being saddled by the continuity that would have come with any straight-up sequel to the original film series.

The result is an action film, but one with surprisingly little action in its first two thirds. If you stripped away the layer of science fiction, the film’s first few acts could more aptly be described as a drama about a family struggling with mental illness and teenage alienation, and their conflicts with corporate and governmental authorities: James Franco plays Will, a scientist whose father (John Lithgow) suffers from Alzheimer’s disease. After an animal testing demonstration of a new anti dementia drug Will is working on goes horribly awry, the project is officially shut down, but Will is determined to keep trying to find a way to heal his father. Another result of the incidence is the adoption of Caesar into Will’s household. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a baby chimp, the child of an ape experimented on by Will. He is the only survivor of that project, and as a few years pass, he displays remarkable acuity, intelligence, and compassion.

The heavy focus on this unusual family grounds the film and makes the audience care about what happens to Caesar. He isn’t a very clever monkey, he is clearly sentient, on the level of humans. Predictably, the humans in the film don’t treat him as such. Even Will, who talks a good game about how Caesar is his precious son, can’t help but regard him as Other and (more importantly) Less-than-human. Once the family dynamic Will/Will’s dad/Caesar is broken up and Caesar really begins to experience the hostility humans can express towards those they consider inferior, we as the audience want him to succeed and take our species down a notch. Unlike what the trailers may suggest, it is humans (and our less noble characteristics) who are the agents of their/our own destruction in the film (that’s not a spoiler; it’s in the title, after all).

It is fitting that a film quite concerned with animal cruelty (one of several themes the movie lightly touches on in the context of medicine development ethics and a larger view of what makes us human) chose not to use any live apes during production. All furry simians are computer trickery achieved via motion capture and a whole lot of clean-up animation. The quality of the effects varies; in some shots, the apes look very convincing, in others they very much don’t. But I was never once really taken out of the film, which was too engrossing; I’d say that the primates look convincing enough in motion. Andy Serkis and whichever animators worked on his scenes deserves special praise; the resulting performance really is very human and empathy-inspiring. Caesar is not a special effect, he’s a real character, which is all the more remarkable given that he primarily has to get his emotions across without human speech.

The film has plot holes: The facility Will works in must be quite terrible at adhering to work safety standards considering the several accidents that happen there during the movie. It’s also rather inexplicable how little Caesar could possibly have been missed by either the scientists or the animal handler (whose head is played by Reaper‘s Tyler Labine, in an unusually subdued performance). Some liberties are also taken with both human and ape anatomy and, in the film’s action scenes, physics in general (glass, for instance, doesn’t work that way). But as with the mocap apes, none of that really matters. I’m quite forgiving when it comes to suspension of disbelief as long as the film keeps my attention and doesn’t force me to scrutinise what I’m shown.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivers on that front. The main actors all give believable and sympathetic (or at least believably unlikable) performances. It is well shot and edited, and the music by the always underappreciated and under-utilised Patrick Doyle is wonderful. The screenplay is taut and economical, too (the movie clocks in at under 100 minutes and expect for Will’s completely unnecessary love interest and maybe one too many reference to the franchise’s past, there is very little bloat). It drives relentlessly towards its strangely uplifting conclusion without forgetting the human drama at its core. That is far more than could have been reasonably expected based on Fox’s (and, really, most major studios’) track record. The film even successfully manages the balancing act of telling a complete story during the course of the film while still leaving room for an optional (not a mandatory!) sequel. If the creative team remains intact for that one, that is one sequel I’m looking forward to.

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