People love to rally against reboots. They cry and holler about how “there’s no originality in hollywood” or that the studios are just “regurgitating old franchises for a quick buck.” They’re wrong. Often times a rejuvenated version of a classic story can be just about the most innovative thing out there. From the ashes of one of the worst remakes of all time, Rise of the Planet of the Apes emerges like a phoenix from the ashes to right previous wrongs, and sets the franchise off on a new and exciting path.
We start off eons before the other films, in present day San Francisco. Dr Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist attempting to create a serum that can cure Alzheimer’s decease which his father (John Lithgow) is affected with. While testing the medicine on chimpanzees, he discovers that one chimp in particular demonstrates increased intelligence. As such, he sneaks him into his house, names him Caesar (Andy Serkis) and raises him as his own. However, once Caesar gets out of hand, he’s forced to live a life of captivity in a barbaric ape shelter run by John Landon (Bryan Cox) and his arrogant son (Tom Felton). Fed up with this, Caesar befriends the other apes and forms a rebellion against the injustices of humanity.
The key to a great reboot is to establish a completely new tone from the previous iteration, and ‘Rise’ masterfully achieves this. Gone is the sardonic, campy tone of previous entries, and in it’s place is an extremely emotionally grounded story with a heavy focus on character, both human and ape alike. While certainly darker then before, it never becomes too heavy, finding those nice little grooves for humor and humanity to balance out some of the more grim moments.
While the human performances are definitely worth mentioning, the real dramatic achievement here comes from the marriage of technology and acting used to bring the apes to life. The process used here is known as Performance Capture. By placing an actor into a suit that tracks each of their movements and mannerisms, those affections can then be adapted into a computer generated character. The master of this craft is Andy Serkis, and here he gives what is by far his strongest performance to date as Caesar. Over the course of this film, we get to see Caesar’s decent from optimism to disillusionment, and with very few words, Serkis manages to completely embody this evolution. Serkis performs more here with digital replications of his eyes then most actors can with their entire body. There are also plenty of other apes who get quite a bit of personality here. Watching Caesar interact with them and in very subtle ways build camaraderie with them as they team up is one of the great joys of this film. It’s everything that the creators of the original franchise dreamed of, Dynamic apes who completely emote, but still are incredibly animalistic.
The human characters aren’t quite as strong. James Franco is a very workmanlike leading man, giving us just enough of a look inside Will’s obsessive personality and desperation to escape becoming a generic leading man, but some of the other actors just don’t have a whole lot to do. Frida Pinto barely does anything beyond standing next to Franco as his love interest, Cox and Felton sneer and snarl their way through their one dimensional villains, and while the superbly talented David Oyelowo chews up the scenery as much as possible, his character never really evolves from being a generic money grubbing businessman. One person who does stand out is Lithgow, providing a subtle and accurate portrayal of Alzheimer’s disease that will break hearts.
The whole thing is very competently directed by Rupert Wyatt, a newbie to the blockbuster game. He has a solid command of scale, often going for the gorgeous tracking shot over the choppy action we’re used to seeing in these films. He lets the apes cut loose and showcase their physicality, without overloading the movie with action. In fact, most of the action is in the final twenty minutes, but the build up to it is so fantastic that you won’t even remotely feel the time go by.
On the front of very minor issues, every so often the effects are a little rough. Don’t get me wrong, for the most part what Weta digital has done here is some of the most groundbreaking effects work of all time, but every so often, the uncanny valley just has to rear it’s ugly head. Sometimes, especially from far away, the fur in particular just does not look realistic, and it feels like a bunch of tracking shots with apes digitally imposed in there. It’s not a huge deal, and it looks to have greatly improved in the sequel, but it’s worth a mention. I suppose when you’re breaking new ground there’s bound to be some growing pains.
While there are certainly areas that it could have been stronger in, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a superb new beginning for the franchise. It introduces some really interesting new ideas, while never loosing sight of it’s main attraction, Caesar, who is by far one of the most impressive CGI creations ever seen on film. It’s an intelligent, fast paced, character driven piece of sci-fi that reminds us why we love the genre in the first place. Not to mention, it certainly seems to have laid the groundwork for an incredible sequel, and I cannot wait to see where that film goes.