Dir. Rupert Wyatt. Starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, John Lithgow
What makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes really different from other serious blockbuster movies of its time is its conscience. Like the original Planet of the Apes, which guesses that a nuclear holocaust would obliterate humanity, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sees the seeds of human destruction in corporate greed. Both are products of their times, reflecting a post-Cuban Missile Crisis or post-Recession mindset, and both manage to cast humans, even the good ones, as people who brought this on themselves. Will (Franco) is a kind man, even to a fault. And yet Will is disproportionately responsible for eliminating his species: creating a virus which, as is confirmed in the credits, wipes out a huge swath of humanity, and for the intelligent apes themselves. It’s a cliche that humans will wipe themselves out, and that in so doing they will have proved, retroactively, that they got what they deserve. Rise flips that order, presenting a humanity which is cruel over and over again and so gives us a reason to cheer for our own species’ failure.
Over and over again, not just in this film but in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as well, characters are what they are made to be. This is literally true throughout the movie, as first Will and later Caesar use Gen-Sys technology to create super-apes with increased intelligence. It’s emotionally true as well. Treating someone nicely makes them nice as well and treating someone cruelly makes them equally cruel. Repeated incidences of brutality and abandonment put an edge on Caesar which he did not possess before; attacked by Will’s jerk pilot neighbor, ill treatment at the hands of Dodge (Tom Felton), getting bullied by other chimps, and even the perceived abandonment by Will and Caroline change him utterly. For some minutes on screen, he is Curious George, nimble and gentle and funny. It’s repeated unkindness which hardens him. The film’s behaviorist thesis works far better here than it would in a story about a human; for instance, the fact that the court system forcefully takes him away from Will is unknowable for a chimpanzee, even an unnaturally smart one, but more or less understandable for the average person. Not only do we feel for Caesar, who is obviously suffering, but it’s hard not to feel for the chimpanzees who are tested for science and the apes who are holed up in cages. They are nearly as human as Caesar, and have been treated much worse for far longer. One of the subtle thrusts of Rise (which preceded Blackfish into the public consciousness by two years) is that humans must do better by the animals which rival our own intelligence. The vast complexity of an ape or monkey or a whale, from the ability to communicate or use tools or strategize, all the way to the powerful family relationships they have, simply must be recognized by human beings. The movie begins with the capture of Bright Eyes, Caesar’s mother and the first chimpanzee to become unnaturally smart thanks to Will. Terrified, she and her group are rounded up and captured to become the property of medical corporations. The movie hardly needs to begin there, but it does for two good reasons. First, it reinforces the status quo antebellum for viewers, and second, it makes it very clear who the bad guys are. It adds a new, updated element of social consciousness which was not the primary concern of Planet of the Apes, and again makes this reboot appropriately fresh.
Andy Serkis gets his second starring role here (or first, if you’re inclined not to count the Kong of King Kong), and this is a much more interesting character for him to play. The smallness of Caesar compared to the gargantuan Kong provides us a greater appreciation for the nuance that Serkis brings to the role, the little gestures which are human enough to be recognizable but are fundamentally not human. Playing a chimpanzee, and playing one who is CGI’d into existence with fascinating likeness to the real thing, is not something that allows an actor to rely very much on intuition. One can imagine the study and rehearsal that goes into a role like this one, and it appears onscreen in the film’s most sympathetic character. (This goes for the other motion-capture actors in the film as well, who bring other named characters like Maurice to life.) The actors who get to play people are unnecessarily good for an action movie. It’s clear at this point in his career that James Franco’s best performance will always be Saul from Pineapple Express, but Franco is reasonably impressive here as the straight man. I wouldn’t have guessed (and certainly not in 2011, which, starting with the Oscars, was the year of Peak Weird Franco) that he had a role as a sympathetic, serious, normal scientist in him, the too-good-to-be-an-everyman-but-he-sure-is-relatable role that someone like Tom Hanks might have conceivably had twenty years earlier. Like many of us, family is a primary concern for Will Rodman, but Franco mixes in his looks and his character’s ability to cure Alzheimer’s into the mix. John Lithgow, as Charles Rodman, is an essential part of the movie and, as John Lithgow so often is, deeply underappreciated. Aside from Caesar and some of the apes, Charles is the person we feel for most as he careens between Alzheimer’s (trying to drive the neighbor’s car, for example) and clarity (it’s implied that he raises Caesar as much as Will does). Freida Pinto is luminous but inessential as Caroline; I’m glad she was paid for this movie, but I wish she’d had a part written for her if she was going to take the time to be in it. It’s yet another example of a movie which probably would have been more interesting if the sexes of the romantic leads were swapped; Pinto is not as strong an actor as Franco, but a woman scientist and a man zoo veterinarian probably would have captured my attention more.
Rise plays around with the happenings of the other Apes movies, down to the wealth of prepositions in the film’s title. The character of Caesar is borrowed from the late-stage Apes movies, although his backstory is far more interesting. The scene where Caesar wonders miserably if he is a pet is an allusion to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, where apes are pets in a world where all the cats and dogs are dead. (That movie came out the same year as The Godfather.) Then there are other moments which wink at the famous scenarios in Planet of the Apes: Brian Cox and Felton play people with the same names as the non-Heston astronauts in, Felton drops a “damned dirty ape,” and Caesar’s first words are every bit as shocking to us as Landon’s first words in Planet of the Apes are shocking to his simian captors. It’s fanservice, but it feels less icky than it would in an Abrams movie. Part of it is that there hasn’t been a well-reviewed Apes movie since the Nixon administration, though it’s also worth noting that the creative team finds elements to play with from previous texts as opposed to relying on them for some kind of justification. Names like “Landon” and “Dodge,” references to Icarus, and a special ape named Caesar are borrowing from previous iterations, as opposed to outright stealing whoever the Spock of the ’68 Planet of the Apes is. More importantly, no one in this movie even looks at the Statue of Liberty, much less curses at it. Rise of the Planet of the Apes shows a happy medium in the ability of a film franchise to rebuild itself without treading on ground that has already been churned into mud. Superhero reboots are guilty of creating their own quicksand this way, constantly going over the same ground in terms of plot and character until one movie is indistinguishable from another. Rise finds a way to preserve the good ideas from a fifty-year-old movie while showcasing new film-making technologies and making the story relevant to viewers who can’t remember being afraid of nuclear annihilation.