Rise of the Planet of the Apes has a brutal and traumatic opening; a happy group of chimpanzees is playing and swinging through the jungle when in a terrifying and violent sequence they are captured by poachers to be delivered to labs for experiments. This tells you right away that the reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise is going to be squarely on the side of our future monkey overlords. To say the film is unsympathetic to the concept of animal testing (at least vis a vis primates), would be like saying Schindler’s List didn’t have a very high opinion of the Nazis. It’s not much of a spoiler to say the movie ends well for the apes; what is perhaps more surprising is how much we in the audience come to cheer on their inevitable triumph.
Prequels are always a tricky business; they have all the dangers and pitfalls of sequels with the added difficulty of everyone knowing what the final result will be. By the time a prequel does get made, the source material surrounding it has grown to epic proportions only heightening the dangers of monumental disappointment. (Look at Phantom Menace for the classic example of prequel failure). For a prequel for Planet of the Apes there is the further difficulty that we are coming with cultural baggage that is not only iconic but also unintentionally campy —not to mention that the main stars of such a concept would by necessity be well…apes. It would be hard to devise a prequel concept that could have greater potential for epic failure than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
The movie does not fail but succeeds as one of the most glorious popcorn movies of the summer. I can’t remember a time I saw such joyous audience response to such a film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that rarest of things, a complex character driven blockbuster; and even more startlingly a character driven blockbuster where the main character is a CGI creature.
Andy Serkis has become something of the Marlon Brando of CGI performances; it was his facial expressions and body language that were the basis for Gollum in Lord of the Rings and the titular character in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong. But what he does with the role of Caesar, the super smart chimpanzee who goes on to become the leader and liberator of his species, is on a whole new level entirely. It’s a performance almost entirely free of dialogue and yet through the look in Caesar’s eyes, the way he clenches his lips, the movements of his shoulders we literally know and experience every single thought and emotion Caesar has throughout the movie. This is not just a great CGI performance; it is a masterpiece of acting for any performer. Period.
We also are treated to Karin Kaolin’s orangutan Maurice who embodies wisdom and dignity and the gorilla Buck by Richard Ryder who has one of the most magnificent scenes in the whole film—exciting, dramatic, and poignant all at once. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is true to summer blockbusters filled with action and excitement (there’s a particularly great sequence on the Golden Gate Bridge that puts the athletic abilities of apes to daring and inventive use), but its true power lies in the way we come to identify with our primate cousins.
The human characters (with the exception of John Lithgow whose portrayal of the Alzheimer’s afflicted music teacher and father Charles Rodman has warmth and sensitivity), don’t come across nearly as well. James Franco’s scientist Will Rodman just isn’t very interesting when he isn’t on screen with Caesar, and Frieda Pinto as the love interest does nothing but look pretty. The rest of the humans by and large are villains; heartless corporate stooges, or louts who get off on bullying the apes, and in one nasty example a neighbor who abuses poor, sick, addle minded Charles Rodman. This becomes the movie’s ultimate subversive message: considering the horrible nature of most of the humans out there and the job they’re doing running the planet, maybe a takeover by Caesar and his brethren would be an improvement.