The Planet of the Apes Series: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
It’s famously said that if you pay peanuts, then you get monkeys. However, I’d like to note that if you pay lots of cash, and hire the right people then occasionally, just occasionally, you can end up with something really quite special. When Rise of the Planet of the Apes was announced my first thought was, to be honest, “fuck that”. Having considered it a bit, I then added “why bother” to that original thought. I honestly believed that Tim Burton’s abortion a few years ago killed Planet of the Apes as a viable 21st century concept. Furthermore, I am the sad sack that’s seen all of them and most of the TV series, and am thus well aware that most of the good Planet of the Apes ideas and imagery have already either passed into pop culture and become little more than a hackneyed footnote. This isn’t to forget for a second, though, that most of the Planet of the Apes films are actually garbage themselves, with the later ones such as Battle being particularly bad. Nevertheless, earlier this year, Droid pointed out the new international trailer for the new version of Rise and my interest in it went from positively subterranean to sky-high. Whoever cut that trailer did a first-rate job in generating interest in a property that most had written off.
Then the reviews started coming in, and blow me down, they were mostly positive too. Word of mouth from learned scribes such as Jonah, and the malfunctioning trash can himself was also generally positive. Rise of the Planet of the Apes had now become a must-see film for me. Just not in 3D.
Everyone knows the score with Planet of the Apes. Basically, in a crazy mixed up future we will no longer spank the monkey, the monkey will spank us. Yes, I know that’s childish and is a quote from Kevin Smith, but never mind, I still think it’s funny. Various of the films in the 1970’s tried to inject heavy social commentary into the Planet of the Apes mix, and as the films deal with the nightmare that is Time Travel the chronology of Planet of the Apes is effectively circular. I’m just going to pretend that the 2001 remake doesn’t exist for a moment, but this is roughly the timeline of Planet of the Apes:
- Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (rebooted as Rise here), which deals with the Apes overthrowing their human masters
- Battle for the Planet of the Apes (a heinous sack of shit, but deals with the apes in command. It’s a cack handed attempt at an anti-racism screed and a pathetic failure on every conceivable level, but more of this later).
- Planet of the Apes (Charlton Heston, “You damned dirty ape”. Set in the far future where mankind has devolved and the apes run everything in a quasi-medieval theocracy).
- Beneath the Planet of the Apes– (the NASA rescue mission, mutant humans with Scottish complexions worship nuclear weaponry)
- Escape From the Planet of the Apes (After the end of Beneath, the three surviving Apes return to Earth in 1973. Events here lead directly to Conquest).
Added to this already confusing chronology, there’s the long-running TV series, Burton’s alternative future in the awful remake and now Conquest has been rebooted as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This time round, though, some thought has been put in regarding the fall of humanity and how we, as a species, could be reduced to caveman level as seen in Planet of the Apes.
James Franco plays Will Rodman, a superstar geneticist. He’s desperately seeking a cure for Alzheimer’s to aid his ailing father (John Lithgow). When will Movie Scientist learn? Fucking around with Mother Nature searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s invariably leads to terrible events. Due to a hideous misunderstanding in the lab, his star chimp (Bright Eyes- a lovely little nod to the first film) blows his big presentation and is gunned down. She has left behind a baby, which chimp wrangler Franklin (Tyler Labine) refuses to put down. Will sneaks the chimp home, and continues to study it. Soon enough, the chimp, now called Caesar is learning at a genius level and Will is sneakily using the virus on his father. Due to an ugly confrontation with a neighbour, Caesar is taken to monkey gaol, abused at the hands of Tom Felton, and gradually begins to plot the revolution. In the meantime, Will’s new virus is accelerating ape intelligence at a fantastic rate, even if there are side-effects for humanity. It all kicks off with the Apes running amok in San Fransisco (they came for the shopping and stayed for the bath houses) and a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge.
This is, and I’m so happy to report this, a very good film. In fact, I’ll go a bit further and say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a fucking good film. Firstly, it feels “epic”, which is quite an unusual sensation for Planet of the Apes films. There are several shots here, the time-lapsing of Caesar’s growth where he’s standing at the top of the Redwood tree staring at San Fransisco (a shot mirrored at the end), there are other little moments here, all centred around Caesar that contribute to this sensation, and I loved the sequence with him busting out of Monkey prison. The score, brilliantly, also adds to this feeling and I walked out of the cinema honestly believing that this was a legitimate and stirring attempt to rebirth the whole Planet of the Apes idea as a viable concept.
Secondly, the motion capture work (Andy Serkis) and anthromorphisation (probably not a word) of Caesar is absolutely stupendous. Serkis is a dab hand at this, and Caesar is clearly the strongest and best developed character in the film. Even if he is a monkey with no dialogue. The best bits of the movie all involve Caesar, such as helping Lithgow eat, and so full marks to the effects people, because this is spectacular.
Pity the same can’t be said about the lead actors. James Franco can act, we all know this, but here he’s, well, lacking. His finest moment is when Caesar turns his back on Franco in the cell, and in this instant we finally get to see a bit of the bond between man and ape. However, against this, Franco is actively terrible on more than one occasion, although he isn’t helped out by some lousy dialogue, such as the “I can’t lose them both” line. Lithgow puts in an enormously sympathetic turn here, and is probably the stand-out non-Ape actor with his look of puzzled terror in the car accident scene being both touching and a little bit scary. The rest of the support here, in particular Labine and Felton are good. With one exception: Frieda Pinto’s eye candy is both an utterly pointless character and lacking in presence. In a way, though, this film is a poisoned chalice for any human actor, as the Apes are clearly the real stars of the piece.
On the writing front, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, for the most part, well written. To deal with the negative first, Caroline may as well not be in the film. The focus of Rise is the relationship between Will, Charles and Caesar, her character adds absolutely nothing to proceedings. It was mentioned that the relationship between her and Will could have been better developed, but I disagree. The problem isn’t her relationship with Will, it’s the character being in the film full stop: she adds nothing, isn’t properly thought out (when we first see her, she’s a vet in an ape enclosure, yet this is forgotten by the end of the film). She doesn’t add another emotional centre and, to be honest, if she did it would make the film worse anyway. She’s just an entirely pointless piece of writing and her appearance in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as if the suits said “this film is too much of a sausage-fest, find some women”.
Nevertheless, I’ve said this is well written, and aside from Caroline, it is. Rise of the Planet of the Apes has an easy narrative flow, and the character arc for Caesar is both well-considered and touching in parts. However, what I really like is that it finds a plausible explanation for humanity’s devolution, contains several nods to the iconic original film, and, best of all, pretends that the 2001 remake simply doesn’t exist. The events, as play out here, work supremely well, and the final coda gives a hint as to the way the future will play. It’s clever without being obnoxious and is honestly the best “blockbuster” writing that I’ve seen in a long time. Oh, and Orci and Kurtzman, take note- it is possible to do a “family” film targeted at 13 year olds and not stuff it full of juvenile and unfunny piss/ wank gags.
Overall, this is a sterling film. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, I bet (haven’t seen Captain America or Conan yet), the best summer film of the year and an unprecedented success given its origins. It is possible with a bit of thought and care to make a good remake and full credit to the team behind this (director Rupert Wyatt). This is how it should be done, and I enjoyed it so much that it’s inspired me to go and watch all of them for a review series now that idiotic Birthday list has finished.
I give Rise of the Planet of the Apes 3 happy baby Orangutans out of a possible 4. Result.
Next up on this list is going to be the original Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which I have to say, I don’t remember very kindly at all.
P.S. I’m not sure which one of these smoking monkeys to use for the logo- so any preferences?