[With Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opening on Friday, July 11th, I'm taking a look back at the Planet of the Apes movie franchise. These reviews contain spoilers.]
The Planet of the Apes movies have always been interested with time. The original movie opens with Taylor (Charlton Heston) explaining that his spaceship’s mission isn’t to explore the galaxy, but to use Einstein’s Law of Relativity to leave Earth and return in the distant future where it might not be such a shithole (Taylor was disappointed). From there, Beneath carried the torch to extinction, Escape traveled back in time, Conquest took a twenty-year jump to begin the downfall of humans, and Battle has a prologue and epilogue that take place in 2670 AD. So it’s fitting that the series’ reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, would restart the clock to unload the baggage of the previous movies rather than throwing us back into the middle of the madhouse. While it didn’t carry the heavy commentary of the original saga, Rise took a new path by putting a strong focus on family and bringing a level of spectacle far beyond what any Apes film had done before.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is filled with major and minor nods to the original, and in the first scene we see humans as the ones with the nets as they round up apes in an unknown jungle. We then move to Gen-Sys and experiments on “Bright Eyes”, which isn’t just a reference to the original movie, but also becomes a plot point to signal that an ape given the ALZ-112 or ALZ-113 formula to repair brain damage or increase intelligence, respectively, has a side effect of adding a green glow to the ape’s eyes.
Dr. Will Rodham (James Franco) is on the verge of a breakthrough, and believes the experiments on Bright Eyes work. However, in the middle of giving his presentation to Gen-Sys’ board of directions, Bright Eyes seemingly goes nuts, rampages through the facility, and has to be shot dead by security. Will’s callow boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) believes the ALZ-112 made the apes go mad, and orders them to be exterminated. All of the apes are put down, but then Will and the lab’s chimp handler Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) discover that Bright Eyes had a baby, and she went crazy because she believed her child was about to be taken away.
The protection of family is one of the central themes in Rise. After Will reluctantly takes the baby chimp home, we discover that his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from Alzheimer’s, and that’s what pushes Will to try and discover a cure. Just as Bright Eyes wanted to save her baby, Will wants to save his father, and in the process Will and Charles end up making the young chimp a member of their family. They name the baby “Caesar”, which isn’t just a reference to one of the saga’s central character, but also a name befitting the leader he will become (as opposed to “Cornelius” or some other reference they could have made).
We quickly learn that Bright Eyes passed down the ALZ-112 formula down to Caesar, which makes him far more intelligent than any ape. He learns sign language and forms an emotional bond with Will and Charles, although he laments having to be kept a secret. But as Caesar grows older, he begins to question his existence, and learns that while he’s not a pet, he’s caught between worlds. He’ll never be accepted among humans and he’s never lived amongst apes. “What is Caesar?” he asks Will.
The answer comes when Caesar, after over-zealously protecting Charles from an angry neighbor, is forced to live in an animal control facility with other apes. At this point, the movie truly belongs to Caesar, and Will is mostly creating plot points leading up to the virus that will destroy humanity. There’s still a bond between the two characters, but the real story is Caesar finding his place in the world and making a new family in the process.
Previous Apes movies have had an emotional core, but none with maybe the exception of Escape have hit it as hard as Rise. The family aspect is what grounds the entire movie, and it’s essential because without the relationships between Will and Charles, Will and Caesar, and most importantly, Caesar and his fellow apes, the film is just a showcase for amazing visual effects.
To be clear, the effects are almost as crucial as the character relationships. The previous Apes movies still did a tremendous job of conveying emotions no matter how rudimentary the makeup may seem to modern audiences, and the advances Rick Baker made with Burton’s remake probably could have held up. The problem is that they don’t fit with the movie’s need to have the apes move naturally. So much of their personality is conveyed through movement, and since we’re not at the phase in ape history where all apes are moving upright, there needs to be a consistency in their appearance. The only way to effectively convey movement is with CGI and so the entire movie follows suit rather than trying to walk the line between makeup for the slow scenes and CGI for the spectacle.
This all leads to Andy Serkis taking on the role of Caesar and giving it its gravity. He can’t move as fast as Caesar or jump from tree branch to tree branch, but his up-close performance is what hooks us in. Franco may have had top billing, but this is Serkis’ movie, and it’s a performance that does justice to what Roddy McDowall did before. There’s still the same cunning, anger, and frustration we saw in Conquest; technical advances have just made these emotions more detailed.
For all of the science mumbo-jumbo about an aerosol virus making apes super-smart and killing off all of the humans, the “Rise” comes from Caesar and how he became the leader of the apes. “Why Cookie Rocket?” is the film’s most memorable line because it is kind of funny to use “cookie” as a verb in relation to a direct object named “Rocket”. But it also sums up why Caesar is a brilliant leader. Rather than make himself a singular voice, he delegates. If he’s going to make a new family, he has to give them responsibility. Otherwise, they’re all just “pets”.
All of this is conveyed with almost no dialogue or a few bits of sign language. Caesar only speaks two lines of dialogue in the movie: “No” when he rebels against cruel caretaker Dodge Landon (Tom Felton) and at the end when he tells Will, “Caesar is home.” This is a movie driven by facial expression and actions. And while I love the small stuff inside the animal control center, the third act shows the movie’s concessions to the modern blockbuster marketplace.
In my original review, I noted the many ways Rise breaks from the blockbuster formula, and I still hold to that. However, it also breaks from the previous Apes movies by avoiding uncomfortable social commentary in favor of the warm feelings of family bonding and the action spectacle that audiences (and studios) demand from summer tentpoles. It’s a modern Apes film in more ways than one, and while I’m a bit bummed out that it doesn’t challenge the audience, it absolutely delivers on the emotions and the set pieces.
And yet it never entirely breaks from the original movies. There’s a passion for the original Apes films that’s completely absent from Burton’s remake. Rise is packed with subtle Easter eggs that tells fans of the original, “We appreciate these movies as much as you do.” There are cute touches like Caesar building a model of the Statue of Liberty to deep cuts like naming the orangutan “Maurice” after Maurice Evans who played Dr. Zaius in the original movie. Then there are notes from the earlier films that have a major connection such as Caesar shouting “No!” (like Cornelius said when he related ape history in Escape) and the flight of the Icarus, which is the name of Taylor’s ship. These little moments show that while we may not be in precisely the same mythology of the original saga, we’re not quite out of it either.
That extends to the tragic aspect of the story. If the apes rise, it means humanity falls, but there’s no indictment of our species in the reboot. In the special features on the Blu-ray, co-writer Rick Jaffa tries to say that the story condemns hubris, but I don’t think Rise really goes into that. You could argue, as Jaffa does, that Jacobs displays hubris, but it’s really straight-up greed rather than reckless excitement about pushing the boundaries of human intelligence. At best, it’s the generalized hubris of any movie where well-intentioned science causes horrible things to happen.
Granted, Rise does try to push humanity’s downfall to the background as much as possible. We don’t see Will coughing up blood or bodies piling up in the streets. We see an occasional shot of Franklin going through the symptoms before dying, and then the spread of the virus is communicated using graphics during the end credits. I’m actually surprised the original ending had Will being shot to death and his murderers being ripped apart by apes. Yes, it’s a mirror of the opening scene, but it wouldn’t fit with the overall tone, nor would it strengthen the theme about family. Again, Rise isn’t about making the audience feel upset. It wants to give them a positive message about family and community plus apes riding horses and a gorilla bringing down a helicopter.
As I said in my piece about the remake of Planet of the Apes, the future of the franchise isn’t obligated to make profound comments on history, sociology, current events, etc. What I like about these movies is that even when they’re being preachy, they’re still kind of fun, and in that respect, Rise of the Planet of the Apes carries on that tradition. It’s a character-driven piece augmented with a level of spectacle that the original saga couldn’t achieve due to budgetary and technical limitations. Rise of the Planet of the Apes may have been caged by modern expectations of blockbuster films, but it was still free to follow in the tradition of the previous films. It’s also free to forge a new path.
[Tomorrow: My review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes]
- Planet of the Apes
- Beneath the Planet of the Apes
- Escape from the Planet of the Apes
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes
- Battle for the Planet of the Apes
- Planet of the Apes (2001)