Everyone loves a good underdog story. It’s impossible to resist rooting for a protagonist who triumphs over adversity by standing up to a system that intends to crush him. In terms of summer blockbusters, this formula often pits humans against an endless assortment of foes, many of whom are decidedly alien.
But like James Cameron’s Avatar, Rupert Wyatt’s ungainly titled franchise reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes requires audiences to root for the downfall of mankind. Both pictures are cautionary works of science fiction featuring motion capture heroes created by Weta Digital, the New Zealand-based effects company responsible for the marvelous creatures in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Without the lifelike animation of Weta, these films would’ve quickly devolved into pure hokum.
Yet hokum has always gone hand-in-paw with the Apes franchise ever since Charlton Heston snarled his infamous “damn dirty apes” line in Franklin J. Schaffner’s 1968 classic. It’s only fitting that the latest version of the Apes picture succeeds as B-movie entertainment, since that’s essentially what the original film was at its core.
The original script--co-authored by Rod Serling--read like a glorified Twilight Zone episode, complete with a rug-pulling twist ending that the subsequent franchise has set out to spoil for future generations. Just as the unnecessary Star Wars prequels ruined the surprise that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker’s father, Rise expects viewers to know that Earth will eventually become a planet controlled by apes.
As an origin story of sorts, Rise of the Planet of the Apes follows the standard “what if” scenario where human greed apocalyptically merges with unrestrained scientific advances. Experiments in genetic engineering conducted by scientist Will (James Franco) aim to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The crusade is a personal one for Will, since his father, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the debilitating ailment.
Through a series of unfortunate events, Will is forced to take care of an ape named Caesar, who inherited the genetically modified intelligence from his deceased mother (one of Will’s former test subjects). Caesar lives the first years of his life in harmony with Will and Charles, but the more he learns of his past and the captivity of his fellow apes, the more he desires to revolt.
There’s an elegance in the way Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s script hints at the cause of mankind’s demise. An early scene in which scientists antagonize a defensive ape is directly mirrored by a key sequence later in the film when Charles is attacked by a temperamental neighbor. If the scientists had bothered to learn that the ape’s protective behavior was caused by her pregnancy and if the neighbor had bothered to learn that Charles’s destructive behavior was caused by his illness, then none of the ensuing mayhem would’ve occurred.
Once people start treating each other as mere obstacles, they risk losing their humanity. It’s a strong message, but the film’s one-note human characters drive it home without a single ounce of subtlety. They are either well-intentioned caregivers or cold-hearted brutes. As for the human performances, they could’ve easily been achieved with CGI.
Franco looks as sullen and detached as he did during last year’s disastrous Oscar telecast, while Harry Potter’s Tom Felton (as a wicked sanctuary worker) delivers little more than an Americanized variation on his signature role of Draco Malfoy. His dialogue is so inexplicably hateful that I kept waiting for him to say, “Filthy little monkey blood!”
Yet these flaws are really just quibbles, especially when juxtaposed with the real star of the show: Caesar. He is the latest game-changing achievement brought to life by Weta animators and actor Andy Serkis, the man who provided the movements and voices for Gollum in Lord of the Rings and the titular gorilla in 2005's King Kong. Serkis is a genius at authentically mixing animal behavior with human nuances, and Caesar is perhaps his most fully realized role to date.
Special effects still haven’t advanced to the point that they’re indiscernible from live action actors, but the meticulous detail in Weta’s characters is so convincing that it earns the viewer’s suspension of reality. Unlike the embalmed figures in Robert Zemeckis’s early motion capture efforts, there truly appears to be a soul emanating from within the eyes of Weta’s extraordinarily expressive creatures.
Though older viewers may feel wistful for the makeup and animatronic effects that were effectively utilized in previous Apes pictures, including Tim Burton’s botched but good-looking 2001 remake, motion capture provides the ideal canvas for this material. Without digital animation, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wouldn’t have been able to include exhilarating sequences where the camera follows apes as they swing freely through their environment.
There’s a particularly striking shot of Caesar soaring through Will’s house as if it were a playground, using mundane objects to catapult him from one room to the next. The climatic action sequence packs a truly visceral punch, and is (for my money) more exciting and inventive than anything in Avatar.
That being said, I hope that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not lead to yet another needless Hollywood franchise. Wyatt keeps the film tightly paced and under two hours, while providing enough clues for how the story will progress beyond the final fade-out. There is no need to bring the tale to its inevitable conclusion. Rise works entirely on its own terms as a standalone work of filmmaking ingenuity, and that may be the greatest compliment of all for a picture that could’ve easily been nothing more than an assembly-line summer blockbuster.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes opened August 5 at the AMC Showplace Village Crossing 18, Regal Gardens 1-6 and Regal Gardens 7-13 in Skokie. The PG-13 movie reigned No. 1 at the box office on its opening weekend, earning $54 million, according to Box Office Mojo.