I came out of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES smiling widely. I didn't downgrade the film when it was first announced like many others did; I liked the trailers that I saw, even though they didn't leave much to the imagination on where the plot was headed. The PLANET OF THE APES franchise is one of the most beloved by movie geeks and everyone knows the premise by now. Charlton Heston on the beach in front of the Statue of Liberty is one of the great iconic images in science fiction, and it's been referenced and spoofed for more than 40 years now. For 20th Century Fox to revive this series, after the critical drubbing that Tim Burton's "reimagining" took, well, I'll give them this, they got guts. But whether or not those guts would translate to the film still remained to be seen.
Well, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES has guts. It takes genuine risks, and scenes that might otherwise come off as incredibly silly are won over by the skills of the master craftsmen and women at WETA, the direction of Rupert Wyatt, and especially, from the acting work of Andy Serkis, who at this point should seriously be considered for some sort of special Oscar consideration. His Caesar is a tremendous achievement - a real, true performance that runs through every emotional range possible - fear, happiness, love, pride, anger, and finally, true heroism. It's stunning how good Serkis and the WETA team are at bringing Caesar to life. It stops being a special effect almost immediately.
We begin in a jungle, as a group of chimps move through the trees. Suddenly poachers grab as many chimps as they can, and one chimp in particular gets shipped to Gen-Sys, a biotech company in the business of making the next new miracle drugs for the 21st century. Gen-Sys is funding Will Rodman (James Franco) to do research on a cure for Alzheimer's. For Will, the research isn't merely academic - his father (John Lithgow) is stricken with the disease, to the point that a once brilliant teacher now must be under constant care. For Will, the drug he's working on, ALZ-112, is his last hope to help his father.
Our chimp, named "Bright Eyes" by the staff, is given the treatment and she begins to show increased intelligence very quickly. Impressed with the results, head of research Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) gives the go ahead for a presentation to get approval for human trials. But Bright Eyes suddenly has what seems to be a breakdown and has to be put down, putting a stop to Will's research. Will is disheartened, but later at Bright Eyes' pen, he discovers the reason for her outburst - it was a protective stance for her newborn. Will, against his better judgment, takes the baby chimp home, and as the chimp, named Caesar by Will's father, grows older, he shows the same increased intelligence as his mother. The drug seems to work, and as we follow Caesar's story the next few years, it becomes obvious that he is no ordinary chimpanzee.
But Caesar begins to question his place in the world, and after an incident involving Will's father, the chimp is, by court order, placed in a primate preserve, managed by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his cruel son Dodge (Tom Felton). As Caesar tries to figure out how he belongs among them, he must use his intelligence to help himself, because he does not have the brute strength or experience that the other apes have. And as events unfold the way they must, Caesar's destiny becomes strangely intertwined with humanity's own. All of this will end as one species continues its inevitable decline, another will emerge as the dominant species of the planet.
The character work on the various apes is remarkable. WETA have truly outdone themselves with the special effects, and they'll surely win the Oscar again this year, deservedly. But even more than that, all the mo-cap performances are perfect. Every ape character is an individual with their own personalities and quirks, and that pays off when the apes finally do rise because we have follwed each individual story arc. Each ape is beautifully rendered, from Maurice the orangutang, to Koda the older chimpanzee, beaten down by years of harsh treatment. The CGI isn't completely flawless, but the use of the motion-capture in live-action sequences, not on a soundstage, really shows how far the technology has come, even since AVATAR only 2 years ago.
If the human performances suffer by comparison, it's to be expected. James Franco and John Lithgow do fine work, and their story is moving and sad, but Freida Pinto is a fairly inert character, given little to do except be Franco's love interest. All Felton is missing is a mustache to twirl, so obvious a villain is he in the film. Although many of the human characters lack subtlety, they don't distract from the story. This is Caesar's film, and Andy Serkis is simply jawdroppingly good. Gollum and Kong were just the beginning for Serkis, who turns in a performance of such depth and emotion that Charlie Chaplin would tip his bowler hat in appreciation.
Fans of the original films will enjoy the throwbacks quite a bit, but what I really liked is how RISE drops into the original scheme of films almost effortlessly. If Fox were to make a sequel to this, they could simply make the original film, line for line, with the WETA effects filling in instead of the rubber masks. It's very much a part of the APES universe and yet stands on its own as a complete work. This is the second prequel this year that's gotten it right - curiously enough the other one, X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, was a Fox film as well. And even though the end result is obvious, it's how the film gets there that's so entertaining. There isn't even much action until the last 30 minutes or so, but the performances, the story, and the effects work are just so riveting that when the inevitable uprising happens it feels completely earned and not arbitrary in the least.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES isn't very ambiguous about what side it's on - this is the apes' film, and we humans deserve what we get. This is a film that treats intelligence as the gift that it is, and not only to the characters in the film but to the audience as well. The ape scenes have little dialogue except for the grunts of the characters, but you know exactly what is happening and what they are communicating to each other. We are invested. There are moments in the film that cause real emotional distress at the fates of some characters, and that's something not easily done in a film like this, especially when many of the films this summer are only interested in having so many things crash into each other for effect. It's truly wonderful how a look between two CGI ape characters can communicate so much to the audience. There's nothing in RISE that feels like it's dumbing itself down for the masses.
In a way, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES plays out like a story handed down in a world where the apes are already the dominant species. Much of the film feels like a bedtime story an ape parent would share with their child. I held off writing this review because after I saw it I was so completely satisfied and happy with the film that I thought I was just overly gushing. The film couldn't be that good, could it? But as the next couple of days passed, the film still stands tall in my mind. It's not that the expectations were low enough to be pleasantly surprised - no, this is a genuinely great science fiction film, and I think the filmmakers, and WETA, especially, deserve the benefit of the doubt. 20th Century Fox has nothing to worry about. I should have seen it coming - RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES stands tall and proud with the rest of the summer releases, and while many of those will be forgotten, RISE will be looked back fondly for years to come. Yes, it's just that good.