Written by: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
I probably shouldn’t start off the review this way but I feel like I should give you this review with full disclosure: the only Planet of the Apes movie I’ve ever seen was the atrocious Tim Burton remake. I do have the original Heston version on my Netflix; I just haven’t gotten to it yet. After all of that I maintain that the newest installment in the franchise, the prequel Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a wonderful film. Equal parts prequel and animal rights expose, Rise is thought provoking, thrilling and heartfelt making it easily one of the better movies to come out this summer.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist bent on curing Alzheimer’s, the disease that is slowly claiming the life of his father Charles (John Lithgow). When he discovers the treatment he used on a mother chimp has passed onto the offspring Will feels the cure has been found. During his testing he comes to care and love the baby chimp named Caesar, a chimp that’s becoming more bonded to him and smarter everyday. Unfortunately, an altercation with a neighbor leads to Caesar being removed from Will’s home to an abusive primate shelter. Once there Caesar comes to lead the apes to a revolution that will give them the freedom they deserve.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more than a film where apes lead a revolution. It’s a coming-of-age film, an ethical debate, and a tale of identity. At its core is the story of Caesar trying to find his place in the world. Is he human, animal, pet, family? All of these questions are raised and left to the audience to answer. The script, written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, is intricate and written at a very brisk pace. At 110 minutes the movie doesn’t spend time on a lot of exposition, but moving quickly to Will and Caesar’s relationship and the chimp’s exponential rise in intelligence.
There’s a wealth of comparisons that can be made about society now based on this film but the most profound element deals with the two main father/son relationships between Will and his father Charles, and Will and Caesar. All three of the arcs are developed equally and with different tones to them. The relationship between Will and Caesar is where the sweetness is. You watch Will raise Caesar from a baby, Will becomes a single father for all intents and purposes. At the same time you have Will cutting the ties with his own upbringing as he watches his father succumb to a disease that has changed who is parent and who is child. The chemistry between Charles, Will and Caesar is fantastic and if this wasn’t a sci-fi film about apes, it could be mistaken as three men coming to terms with adulthood.
After the three relationships are cemented the film seamlessly shifts to Caesar alone in the world and his need to find his strength in order to save the apes of the shelter. Caesar is like any rebel leader leading a band of oppressed individuals but in this case it takes the animal rights debate up a notch. The film may be a prequel to a series where humans are wiped out and enslaved by these creatures, but this film has you feeling for Caesar, an animal who has been abused and wants to take out his tormenters.
The animation and acting of Caesar is nothing short of exquisite. Played through motion capture by Lord of the Rings star Andy Serkis, the apes look so realistic that you’ll believe they’re all real animals. Serkis gives 200% as Caesar whether it’s through his soulful eyes or his wide range of expressions and hand gestures. Starting as an adorable baby to an adult, Serkis puts so much of himself in the character that you’ll have a hard time seeing him as either entirely ape or human. The use of WETA Digital is also fantastic, probably the best it’s been and it’s been pretty spectacular.
The only other actor that touches the quality of Serkis is John Lithgow as Charles Rodman, Will’s father. His role isn’t that of star but you’ll be remembering him after the film ends. Charles is the catalyst for Will’s drive to discover a cure making him both the inspiration and destruction for everything. Watching Lithgow portray the wide range of emotions of an Alzheimer’s patient is worthy of awards, but incredibly sad as well from the happiness he exhibits when he sees his disease is lessening to the confusion and ultimate resignation to his fate. Lithgow is heartbreaking and fantastic. At times his bond to Caesar is more powerful than Will’s, making him more memorable than Franco.
With Lithgow’s character one sees that director Rupert Wyatt and the writers have stuck to the old adage: The road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Will starts out with the pure intent of curing his father and the scenes of Charles responding to treatment makes Will and the audience see what beautiful things can be achieved with medical technology. Caesar himself also yearns to free the apes and gain them respect in the world without human casualties, he refuses to harm a human, but the revolution ends up making them even more frightening.
The film does have a few flaws courtesy of the human cast. The humans are essentially written as horrible (Tom Felton and Brian Cox’s primate sanctuary owners) and good-hearted scientists (Franco and Frieda Pinto’s veterinarian). There’s no middle ground and it causes both sides to see entirely flat and two-dimensional. Franco is the only one with any character development with his father, there’s never anything learned about the evil primate owners or Pinto’s character. Franco himself seems completely out of it as Will, returning to the flat, lifeless person he was at the Oscars. Pinto is a pretty face who condemns Will’s actions but doesn’t do anything about it. Felton and Cox are used simply to move the plot.
Despite the lukewarm human cast, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a thought-provoking and engaging time at the movies. WETA’s animation, Serkis’ performance and the tight story all cancel out the flaws making it one of the must-see movies of summer!
Author: Kristen Lopez, Editor in Chief
Kristen Lopez is the editor-in-chief of CC2K and a freelance pop culture essayist. Her work has appeared on Roger Ebert, The Hollywood Reporter, and The Daily Beast. When she’s not burning down Film Twitter she runs two podcasts, the female-centric film show Citizen Dame, and the classic film-themed Ticklish Business.