As promised, this will be the first of three reviews this week. This first one will cover Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first entry in what is now being called the “Caeser Trilogy.” I will continue with a review of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the second entry, in the next couple days. Both will lead up to my review of War for the Planet of the Apes this weekend.
I should preface by saying that I’ve always found the Planet of the Apes franchise to be rather absurd. I’ve written about this before in my Kong: Skull Island review: My personal suspension of disbelief does not extend to monkeys. Anything else is fine. Aliens, giant robots, dinosaurs, zombies, whatever, I’ll take it. For some reason I just cannot do monkeys. I’ve never been able to get over that particular hurdle. The aliens and the robots and stuff are so far outside reality that I just readily accept them. But apes and monkeys are real things, so it’s hard for me to believe a story where they take over the world somehow. They are too close to reality to be real, in a way.
That being said, the current Apes trilogy has begun to change my mind.
Full credit goes to the writers of Rise of the Planet of the Apes and director Rupert Wyatt for taking an ailing and aimless franchise and not only breathing new life into it, but also grounding it in a way that, to me, feels real and terrifyingly plausible. They took a hokey concept and actually made it a story with narrative depth, a story ABOUT something.
Rise is very much the Batman Begins of this trilogy. It takes something that shouldn’t be credible and brings it down to ground level, infusing it with a reality that immediately brings it to life. Just as Batman Begins asks the question “What if Batman actually existed in our world?”, Rise asks, “What if apes actually did become the dominant species on this planet? How would that happen?” As it turns out, that question is an excellent and compelling starting point.
We have in Rise a cautionary tale of the infuriating cruelty of mankind and humanity’s hubris. It brings into focus the way we treat our animals, our environment, and our world. It asks some very important questions, scrutinizing the limits of science, examining the relationship between creator and creature, God and man, father and son, and the responsibility intrinsic in those relationships. Rise asks some of the very same questions posed by a certain other franchise about giant prehistoric reptiles, although Rise arguably handles them in a more interesting and mature way. And to steal a quote from that dinosaur movie, “These scientists are so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”
So here we have Will, played by James Franco, a scientist who is attempting to cure his father’s Alzheimer’s disease by testing a new treatment on chimps. As Will watches his ailing father’s condition worsen, he forms a father-son relationship of his own with Caesar, a chimp born in Will’s lab. It is this relationship that serves as the crux of the story, as the creature Caesar receives the divine gift of intelligence from his father and “creator” Will. Just like mankind, as Caesar grows and discovers more of the harshness of the world he is born into, he comes to question his place within it and the rightness of mankind’s dominance.
And the truly impressive thing about this film is that likely about sixty-five percent of the story is told wordlessly, through action and expression alone. The screenplay is a masters class in “show, don’t tell.” Even the ending credits tell a complete, and to be honest, terrifying story.
Caesar is easily the most compelling character in the movie, and he has a total of three lines. This is due to the marriage of brilliant writing and an equally brilliant performance by Andy Serkis, the motion-capture king who rose to prominence by bringing Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. It is an absolute travesty that Andy Serkis does not receive top-billing in the casting credits, because his performance not only carries the movie, but out-classes any of the human actors or characters. (As a sidenote, the CGI in Rise, while stellar for the time, has aged, but only slightly. In just a few days’ time, it looks like War may legitimately be the first movie where the line between CGI and reality is completely indiscernible.)
And make no mistake, the human characters are absolutely secondary in these films. This is a story very much about Caesar and his band of Apes – Koba, Maurice, Rocket, Buck, and many others. None of the human characters carry over between films in this trilogy, which is a smart move, as it drives home the themes of the narrative and allows the main character development to be devoted to the apes themselves, as they are unquestionably the stars and the driving force of this story.
Throughout the film, Caesar comes to understand and ultimately reject the world of man, and not only is it hard to blame him, it’s hard to disagree with him. I don’t believe there’s a soul alive that doesn’t occasionally wonder if humanity is worth the bother. Caesar’s character arc in Rise is a heartbreaking one, as all he really wants is a home. But we denied him that, and when he tried to leave peacefully, we wouldn’t let him do that either.
And thus one world falls, and another rises.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is very much Chapter One. And I do have to say, as well-written, well-acted, and well-directed as Rise is, it is made even better within the context of what comes after. A film should always be able to stand on its own, whether it’s in a series or not. Rise does, but it also serves as the prologue to a much bigger story, a story that is grounded and made real by the strength of its characters.
Whether the viewer realizes it or not, Rise serves as a witness to the rise of a legendary figure in Caeser. It really is mythical storytelling, and that is the best kind.