Let's put it this way: I left the theater thinking that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the biggest and most pleasant surprise of a movie that I had seen this entire year! And in many ways this movie's grasp and execution of concept exorbitantly surpasses that of the 1968 original film.
Now, I love the original film with Charlton Heston like all get out. The '68-vintage Planet of the Apes will forever be a classic movie. But y'know, for audiences forty-some years on, the notion of an Earth taken over by simians could be... a bit more "boss", as they used to put it. As an example of filmmaking of its own time (a criteria that I judge all movies with) it will always stand tall. But you tell me if a new vision of an ape-dominated world could be focused on long oral diatribes of philosophical platitude and still be taken seriously by a 2011 audience.
That ain't what moviegoers want. And we didn't get it with Tim Burton's, ahem, "remake" in 2001 either: a film that was fun eye candy in the theater but has proven itself a frustrating movie in the decade since.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Rupert Wyatt, is the Apes movie that I didn't realize until yesterday that I had always wanted to see. At last we get absofrigginlutely real apes violently revolting against humanity in a bid to overturn the tables on the established order...
...and it is one hella fun ride that grabs you from the first moment and refuses to let go. But this movie is also the first time that the franchise has ever had a "hard science fiction" entry. By "hard science fiction" I'm thinking of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and Moon. Movies that use science in all its brutally cold possibilities to explore the human condition.
Yeah, that's the ticket: if you want a day's double feature of hard sci-fi, watch Duncan Jones' brilliant movie Moon before going to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. That oughtta give your gray matter plenty of rough sussin' afterwards to endure (in a good way).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens with a troop of chimpanzees on the move through the jungles of Africa. Several of them are captured by native hunters and shipped to the United States, to be sold to pharmaceutical research firm Gen Sys for animal experimentation of new drugs. Enter one Will Rodman (James Franco): Gen Sys's most hotshot researcher, hellbent on finding a cure for Alzheimer's so that his suffering father (wonderfully played by the all-too-rarely-seen-these-days John Lithgow) might overcome the neuro-degenerative disease and have a new lease on life. Will has been playing around with a compound called ALZ-112 and his main test subject - a female chimp nicknamed "Bright-Eyes" - begins to exhibit incredibly accelerated cognitive abilities. Unfortunately Bright-Eyes for no apparent reason (at first) goes nuts just as Will and his boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo) are presenting their research to the Gen Sys board of directors. Bright Eyes is put down, and the remaining chimps soon thereafter are killed... but not before Will and his staff discover that Bright-Eyes has given birth to a male baby that she was trying to protect.
Will takes the baby chimp home, and it's his father who, recollecting the works of Shakespeare, dubs the newborn "Caesar". During the next several minutes we are treated to a series of segments that follow Caesar's life from his arrival in the Rodman home until eight years later.
But it's not just Caesar's stature which has grown. Will realizes that the ALZ-112 given to Caesar's mother has horizontally transferred itself to Caesar, giving the chimp even greater mental capability than his mother possessed. Unfortunately Caesar's growing intellect is also coinciding with his increasing awareness that in a world controlled by humans, that he will never be anything more than a chimp on a leash (literally). Soon afterward there is an incident that gets Caesar court-ordered into a primatological compound run by John Landon (Brian Cox, who also shines in anything that he's in) and his sadistic son Dodge (Tom Felton, more cruel here than he ever was as Draco Malfoy). Meanwhile Will reveals to Jacobs what the ALZ-112 formula has done to his father and Caesar, and Gen Sys's research is on again... except that it soon becomes apparent that a different viral agent is needed to deliver the gene therapy to the brain.
So we wind up with Caesar: smarter than the average ape, and paddocked-in with dozens of maltreated simians. And a team of humans messin' around with things that in hindsight should not be meddled with. See the inevitable conflagration coming and you get a banana. But it's how the conflict erupts which is so beautifully orchestrated and totally unlike anything we've ever seen in an Apes movie before, that will leave you astounded and wanting more (and there'd better be more Apes movies after this one!).
Rupert Wyatt is a brand-new director to me, but after seeing this sophomore film (his first was The Escapist) I can only see good things to come from this guy. The script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver flies at a brisk pace, and I was thrilled by all the references to the original movie: none of them pretentious but neither are they too subtle for Ape-ficianados (among others, look for a nod to the Statue of Liberty, and a very nice tribute to Maurice Evans, the actor who played Zaius in the first two films). In terms of special effects, this might be at once the most impressive work and also the most low-key that Weta Digital has pulled off yet. The rampaging apes fit so fluidly into the setting of modern-day San Francisco, you might think that you're watching a Discovery Channel special... until the apes begin their brutal exodus to freedom. And I thought that this was an excellent cast, which also includes Freida Pinto.
But if there is one element that makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes work more than anything else, it must be Andy Serkis. And it is positively fascinating to consider how his career has developed since his portrayal of Gollum in Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings ten years ago. Serkis has four - count 'em, four - spoken words of dialogue in Rise of the Planet of the Apes... but he is easily the one pouring most of his strength and heart and soul into acting in this movie. Serkis's Caesar is the Gollum technique played to a whole 'nother level: the motion-capture stuff alone is beautiful to behold, but Serkis conveys entire paragraphs of exposition with only his eyes in this movie. And when the credits begin to roll and we see how humanity's days are soon numbered, it only leaves us hungering for more of Serkis as Caesar. A lot of people are saying that Serkis deserves a nomination for Best Supporting Actor in the next Academy Awards. Having seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you can notch me down as one of those folks.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best movie that I have seen in this summer of the year of our Lord Two Thousand and Eleven. Had it come out a few months later it would have had no problem fitting itself among the slew of fall "Oscar contender" movies. But as it is, catch it at the theaters now for a midsummer night's healthy dose of serious science-fiction, highballin' fast action and morality tale about playing God with nature all rolled into one. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best relaunch of a film series that I've seen since Batman Begins... and I for one hope these wacky apes keep raiding the box office for years to come. Absolutely highly recommended!