Wait, I thought Tim Burton killed the Ape franchise with his 2001 rendition of the classic. He didn’t succeed. I’m thankful he didn’t because Rise of the Planet of the Apes is close to a perfect sci-fi action flick.
Rather than focus on the human protaganist, Rise takes a fresh approach by making the genetically enhanced, lab born ape, Caesar (Andy Serkis) the center of attention. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist desperately searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s disease. His search is personal, as Will’s dad, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the disease. Right away we learn that Will is on to something, as an ape known as “Green Eyes” shows greatly improved intelligence as a result of the proposed cure, ALZ-112. Things turn sour as Green Eyes goes crazy, wrecks havoc on the lab and is shot. The other apes are put down as the company fears ALZ-112 is deeply flawed. Unbeknownst to Will and his co-workers, Green Eyes flipped out trying to protect her newborn. Rather than put the chimp down, Will sneaks him home.
Will quickly learns that Caesar is not an ordinary chimp. Caesar shows signs of incredible intelligence. This leads Will to eventually give his dad ALZ-112 he smuggles from the company. Charles returns to his normal self while Caesar continues to exhibit extraordinary acumen. As years pass Caesar desires to get out of the house, to enjoy life like the children he observes from his attic window. Will takes Caesar to the Redwoods but Caesar soon realizes that he is treated more like a pet than a human. Will breaks down and shows Caesar the building where Caesar was born and his mom died. This moment ultimately leads to Caesar’s descent. He realizes he’s not human yet he’s not just an ape.
Meanwhile, Will notices that his dad’s disease is back with a vengeance. It’s so bad that Charles goes outside one morning, hops in a neighbors running car, and proceeds to smash it into the cars parked in the front and back. The neighbor comes out and freaks out. He yells and gets in Charles’ face. Caesar observes this from the attic window and takes action. This is Caesar’s ticket to the ape sanctuary where Will promises Caesar he’ll be back home soon.
It’s at this point in the film that the ape sanctuary turns into a prison film. Caesar is the new kid on the block. He’s never been around other apes. He doesn’t completely understand apes who are not intelligent like he is. The lessons for him are rough. Caesar is homesick and more confused than ever. The fact that all of this is completely believable with computer animated apes is astonishing. After hearing and reading interviews with cast and production crew members, I’m convinced now more than ever that Andy Serkis should be nominated for a best actor award. His performance mixed with the technology take this movie to new heights.
The ape sanctuary has some of my favorite moments in the film and one of its worst. If Rise is guilty of anything it’s of some over the top archetypes. The most obvious example is Tom Felton playing one of the sanctuary workers. Felton’s performance is so absurd that by the time he utters a famous line from the original movie I simply rolled my eyes. It was completely expected, as Felton proved he was nothing more than the sinister prison guard.
The movie zooms past at an exhilarating speed. There is no time for exposition. The storytelling is precise. Every small moment has a purpose. For example, Caesar draws the attic window on the wall of his cell at the sanctuary only to erase it once he decides he’s going to lead an ape rebellion. Charles’ struggle to play a piano song prior to ALZ-112 and then gracefully playing a composition afterwards. The use of green eyes to show that an ape has been exposed to the cure. All these are small ways that tell the story rather than spend precious time better spent elsewhere.
While Caesar works overtime to put together his plans, Will works overtime to find a new cure for Alzheimer’s and convinces his boss that it’s time to reopen the project. The boss buys in once he learns that Will’s dad showed great improvements for a period of time and Caesar showed increased intelligence. The prospects of a drug that makes you smarter is too much to resist. Will’s boss wants research on apes to return and to go full throttle.
Eventually the big pay off happens. Some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a long time take place. Awesome action set pieces. One brilliant call back to the original movie. So much good action in the end that we forget that we’re rooting for the end of mankind as we know it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes may not get a lot of love on people’s top films of 2011 but it should. It’s one of those rare sci-fi action films that is so well paced and executed that you forget the challenge it overcame, following a long line of predecessors, many of which weren’t all that good and some that were simply awful.