Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

RotPofA

Discussing anything related to Planet of the Apes with me can be a taxing affair… I know this.  Mention the latest installment in the 43 year old cinematic history of the franchise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and you can expect to get the full story arc beginning with the original 1968 film, Planet of the Apes (PotA)… my extreme distaste for its sequel, Beneath the PotA… my somewhat goofy warmth towards the third, Escape from the PotA… my adoration of the fourth, most derided yet most appropriate in the current discussion, Conquest of the PotA where we get the story of the offspring of Cornelius and Zira, Caesar, and his rise to power amongst the enslaved simians being used to ease the lives of their human masters… only to finish it’s original movie arc with the crap-fest that is Battle for the PotA.  When Tim Burton announced he was planning on “reimagining” the original film back in 2001, I was thrilled… until I saw it.  I don’t like to talk about that one.

I’m not going to do that though… ahem… instead, I will review the movie that I saw Friday night and not get too much into the history… the canon, if you will.  If I were a nine year old movie goer watching Rise of the PotA as my first experience in this particular universe, what would I think?  Based on my daughters reaction, I would say it was awesome.  As a 39 year old man, my reaction was, “this is awesome!”

To nitpick would be easy… this is not a perfect film by a long shot… but it is absolutely entertaining and more fun than any PotA deserves to be.  Like many of its predecessors, it has a message… on the surface, it is an anti-animal testing/pro-animal rights screed… a bit deeper, I believe the message is that the road to our loss of species domination on the planet is paved with good intentions.

The story begins with a drug.  A drug in it’s final stages of primate testing that will repair brain damage and ultimately lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease.  Will Rodman (James Franco) is the scientist developing the drug.  Charles Rodman (John Lithgow) is his father… and has Alzheimer’s.  Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is Will’s boss who is more interested in profit than the science…this is the set up.  After a problem with one of the chimps being used in their experiments, who happened to show a greatly increased level of intelligence, the project is shut down and Will finds himself stepping outside of protocol.

At this time, The Franco is left with a baby chimp who becomes a companion to his ailing father and a son to him.  He is intelligent, has a wide sign vocabulary and is an all around special chimp who happens to wear shirts and pants… and in a clever montage in the redwoods of Muir Woods (yay… Marin country) we see Caesar (Andy Serkis grow.   Added to this happy scene is a young veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), that Caesar manages to hook Will up with… and to top it all off with a cherry, the drug has been working on his father.  Everyone is happy… everything is going great… certainly this will last!

No.  It does not last.  Caesar eventually finds himself court ordered into a primate rescue center (in San Bruno?  I don’t think so) and at the mercy of a father-son duo (Brian Cox and Tom Felton) who have as much love for their charges as a slaver for his goods.  It is here that Caesar begins to wrest control of the films story from the humans… and it is here that we as the audience become fully aware of the fact that this is not James Franco’s film… not Lithgow’s, not Cox’s… this is Andy Serkis’ film.  It is in these dialogue-free scenes that we come to know what is going on in this apes head as he works out one plans after the other.  Performance capture artist Andy Serkis is that man responsible for Gollum, King Kong and now Caesar.  What we see on the screen is completely computer generated.  There is not a single real ape in this film (much to PETA’s delight), and yes… there are moments you can certainly tell… but what no computer could ever replicate is the performance underlying Caesar’s journey.  Andy Serkis is Caesar… his movements, his ability to mime emotion… to place his heart on his entire being, and managing to give a nuanced and remarkably subtle individual performance.  The humans pale in comparison… and it becomes very much to their detriment.

Any further plot points would begin delving into spoiler territory (I’ll have some of that at the end of this post), but as a San Francisco Bay Area resident for the last half of my life… and most of that in the city proper, it is an absolute pleasure to see apes cascading down Twin Peaks, or clogging up downtown and rampaging on the Golden Gate Bridge.  As a Marin county resident it was extra great to see Muir Woods.  Even a Hollywoodized version of the park (where were the tacky tour buses and over crowded parking lots?).

As for performances… I can’t say enough about Serkis’ performance… stellar in every metric.  Lithgow is always great… Franco and Pinto, a bit bland, but serviceable (there’s a resume builder… serviceable)… Cox is always good and Felton seems to be channeling his redneckier version of Draco Malfoy.  He plays a wonderful little prick who’s face you simply want to punch… repeatedly.  A special shout out to Maurice, the circus orangutan… a little comic relief and another great motion capture ape, in addition to all of the apes.  I suppose I should be praising the graphic artists or the software engineers… but in my mind, they did such a grand job of it, I see them as individual apes.

It is a joy for me to be able to say, with no irony… no tongue in cheek… no camp value or kitsch… that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a wonderful movie that will surprise you in the end by just how much you really enjoyed this film.  One aspect I liked very much, is that there were a number of little nods to the original films sprinkled throughout.  Below the trailer I’m going to list the call backs that I noticed and will ask if you have any others to add.  It will be slightly spoilery, so don’t read them if you wish to be spoiler-free.

I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpan-Z…
Cornelius J. Blahg

Caution… spoilers below…

This is a list of the moments I caught that referenced or called back something from the original Planet of the Apes films.  I would love to know if I missed any.

  • Caesar – The name itself is a call back to Cornelius and Zira’s child.
  • Cornelia – The name of one of the chimps at the shelter… obvious nod to Cornelius… great name.
  • “Get your paws off me you damn, dirty ape” – Felton says to Caesar… as opposed to Taylor (Heston) saying to apes.
  • Bright Eyes – The name given to Caesar’s mother… which is the name Zira gives to Taylor in the original before they realize he can talk.
  • Maurice -The circus orang… which was the first name of the actor who played Dr. Zaius in the original.
  • Charlton Heston movie playing in the background
  • On TV at one point, a report of the first manned mission to Mars -In the original story, Taylor is one of three astronauts who find the planet, crash landing after becoming lost in space.
  • San Francisco Chronicle newspaper reads, “Lost in Space” – Can you smell a sequel?
  • No! – In Conquest of the PotA, this is the word Caesar teaches the apes.

I’m sure I missed something… if you know of another wink and nod to it’s history, send me an email… mrblahg@mrblahg.com  Also… was that Bruce Campbell playing a cop on the GG Bridge?  I would have sworn he was the cop that gets pitched over the side… but he’s not listed in the credits on IMDB.

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