You’re not supposed to cut out your stars half-way through your blockbuster movie. You’re not supposed to rest your big summer movie on apes created by CGI motion-capture technology. You’re not supposed to sell an audience on the far-fetched idea that humans can be defeated by a species that doesn’t have opposable thumbs [correction: Apes do have opposable thumbs. We’re all doomed]. You’re not supposed to leave the audience on a down note. There’s so much that goes into making a formulaic, forgettable blockbuster and no one told the folks behind Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Instead, Rupert Wyatt, the screenwriters, the actors, and the special effects team broke all the rules and came out with one the summer’s most exciting movies.
Hollywood movies would really like it if scientists stopped trying to cure things. Our medical knowledge peaked when we stopped using leeches and realized that maybe we shouldn’t shit in our drinking water. Everything else is pure hubris and so it goes that scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is in a noble-but-misguided quest to cure Alzheimer’s disease. His company GEN-SYS has created a new treatment called ALZ-112 and has been testing it on apes. An ape called Bright Eyes (the treatment causes the irises of the apes to turn gold) has made the furthest progress and she’s about to be introduced to investors, but then unexpectedly goes wild, breaks free, ruins the presentation, and is shot dead before she wreaks any more havoc.
It turns out she hadn’t gone mad but was protecting her newborn child and while the greedy and heartless GEN-SYS head Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), who utters cringeworthy lines like “You make the science and I make money,” demands all the apes be put down, Will smuggles the baby home and his dad, Charles (John Lithgow), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s, names the young ape “Caesar”. Caesar inherited his mother’s heightened intelligence and at age three he’s already smarter than most eight-year-old children. Eight years after Will adopted him, Caesar is an adult (and played by Andy Serkis via mo-cap technology) and beginning to question whether or not he’s an equal or just a glorified pet. Will assures him that he’s not a pet, but when Caesar violently attacks an ass-hole neighbor in order to protect a confused Charles, the police throw Caesar into an animal control facility with regular stupid apes.
And that’s where Rise of the Planet of the Apes goes from good to great. Wyatt takes his time developing the character of Caesar and while Franco may be the “star” of the film, it really belongs to Serkis and the special effect geniuses at WETA. Will becomes a background character as he struggles to get Caesar released while trying to update ALZ-112 to into an aerosol form that can better fight off antibodies. The movie breezes through these scenes because where its heart truly lies is with Caesar developing his relationship with his other prisoners and staging an escape.
No big-budget movie this summer overcame both a narrative and technical challenge like ROTPOTA. Wyatt places his movie in the hands of characters that cannot talk except through sign language (which is used sparingly), must convey most of their emotions through facial expressions alone, and those facial expressions can’t cheat what we all know to be the faces of apes, gorillas, and orangutans. Serkis and WETA helped to pioneer what a motion-capture character could do with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. WETA then re-invented motion-capture technology with Avatar. With Rise of the Planet of the Apes, they’ve taken the technology and its ability to convey Serkis’ powerful performance to the next level. Caesar is an amazing character not because you’re constantly admiring the technical artistry in creating him, but because you forget that any technical artistry went into creating him at all. You’re simply watching a compelling character who has to eventually reconcile being raised as a human and his primal nature.
It’s not that you’ll always forget you’re seeing visual effects, but we need to move beyond simply demanding photorealism from every CG animation we catch in a live-action movie. The notion that if we can’t be fooled then the CG has failed is preposterous. CG usually fails not because of its use, but because the audience is so uninterested in the characters and the story that they can’t help but let their minds drift to the movie’s other faults. But we care about Caesar and we care about his fellow apes so we don’t care that we’re watching a special effect when we see Caesar and his fellow apes use their awesome agility and brute strength.
Showcasing the physical prowess of the apes and showing it early in the movie reminds the audience that these creatures do pose a threat and the decision to lead with this presentation is one of Wyatt’s smart moves. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a remarkable blockbuster debut for a director whose only previous feature film was the prison escape thriller The Escapist. Despite a great cast (the film’s star Brian Cox has a supporting role in Apes as the apathetic manager of the animal control facility), The Escapist never quiet came together and I was nervous for what Wyatt would do when handling a hard-sell blockbuster movie. Instead, Apes comes off like the work of a veteran filmmaker. Wyatt knows when to scare, when to throw in a joke, when to hit the dramatic beats, and how to craft riveting set pieces. The movie’s third act rebellion of the apes is exhilarating and a grand climax to a story that never forgets its characters or its subtext.
I don’t like to reference marketing in my review of a film, but I feel this is a good opportunity to clear something up: The trailers and the TV spots make it look like this is the beginning of a revolution and we’re going to see how the apes rose up and defeated humanity. That’s not what happens and while I won’t spoil Caesar’s ultimate goal, I will say that the movie doesn’t try to make anyone seriously believe that the planet could be taken over by apes no matter how intelligent, agile, or physically imposing they may be. The movie cheats a little in showing how many apes charge through San Francisco, but there’s nowhere near enough apes in the city or on the planet for any viewer to believe that they could bring down humanity.
Back to the review: while Wyatt has his love for the apes, the trade-off is that the human characters are broadly drawn and it sometimes feels like a waste of a good cast. Tom Felton plays American Draco Malfoy working as a cruel guard at the animal control facility (that only houses primates, apparently) and he’s saddled with the worst line in the entire movie. It’s completely out of place for a movie that is usually more subtle when it wants to reference any of the other Apes films. Freida Pinto plays Will’s girlfriend but it seems like her only purpose is to say things like “You’re trying to control things that aren’t mean to be controlled,” and other “not meant to” statements as if science had agency. It also is a ham-fisted way to get to the movie’s obvious and tired statement about man’s hubris and how if you mess with the “natural order” of things, the unnatural order will steal your horse and trample you with it.
However, these are minor distractions and they may have grown out of control if Wyatt hadn’t trusted his apes to carry the movie. Instead, he leaves the safety of conventions and human actors behind to risk it all on his digital, motion-capture characters who can say far more with their incredible actions than they ever could with pages of dialogue. The result of Wyatt’s gamble is a summer blockbuster that is fresh, genuine, and an absolute blast.