Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Revolution can be fun
Rupert Wyatt
James Franco, Frieda Pinto, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow
The Setup: 
Prequel tells how mankind died out and apes took over.

So having gone to see the original Planet of the Apes and found it to be a badly-dated snore-fest that is more annoying than anything (the consensus is you had to see it when you were younger), I was at least familiar with the many references this movie made to that film. This one is a nice, leisurely-paced thriller with steadily rising action, that makes putting intelligent faces on chimps and apes to be its greatest special effect. And it is awfully cheerful, given that it details the dying out of all humanity.

We open in the lab of Gen-Sys (which sounds like Genesis, if you say it aloud) where a chimp called Bright Eyes (reference to original film #1) has been given an experimental drug which makes her extremely intelligent. It has been developed by James Franco as Will, who hopes it will help reverse the effects of Alzheimers. He is pitching the movement to human trials to some shareholders when Bright Eyes goes nuts, rampages through the whole place, and finally ends up getting brutally shoot to death right in front of all their shareholders. I guess they're not going to get funding, then. Back downstairs, they find that Bright Eyes gave birth to a baby, which they name Ceasar. Don't think about the unlikelihood that they wouldn't know that this chimp, under constant testing, was pregnant, or gave birth in her cage, or would leave her infant so long unattended when supposedly trying to "protect" it. Just go with it! Anyway, Will takes the baby home and raises it as his own.

Present at home is John Lithgow is Will's father, mind lost to Alzheimers. Soon will is giving his dad the drug, and finding him returned to mental acuity the next day. They are both amazed at the mental progress of Caesar, who is ridiculously smart--he had the drug in his system through gestation and birth. Will teaches Caesar sign language, and raises him as a human might be. If you've seen the documentary Project Nim, about a real chimp raised as a human child, you won't be able to avoid seeing certain similarities.

Years pass, Will gets a hot new girlfriend in the form of Frieda Pinto, best known from Slumdog Millionaire. By now Caesar is a smart, and sullen, teen chimp. They take him to see the redwoods in Muir woods, north of San Francisco, and let him climb free. Please also don't think too much about whether anyone can just let their chimps run wild in National Parks without receiving some sort of legal intervention. Caesar wonders where he came from, and Will shows him Gen-Sys. Caesar is computer animated using the facial expressions of Andy Serkis, sort of the go-to guy for CGI performance capture figures, as he portrayed both Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and King Kong in the Peter Jackson remake. The whole deal here is that we can see thought and emotion on Caesar's face, and it pretty much works: Caesar is a fully-formed character and you forget that he's not a real, breathing and thinking being.

Suddenly the drug wears off on Will's father, and he soon returns to his former state, and soon dies. Caesar got into a bit of very public trouble, and is thrown into a relatively nasty facility, overseen by Brian Cox, doing another variation of the jaded, evil characters he specializes in. Also working at the facility is Tom Felton, who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, which probably resulted in the gasp of ecstasy that erupted in my theater the moment he appeared on screen. He's a sullen and irresponsible caretaker, who cruelly abuses the chimps when no one is looking. At the facility, Caesar makes friends with an orangutan, and we are introduced to a big Ill-mannered gorilla in a cage, as well as a nasty rival chimp. Caesar holds out for a while, but when Will comes for a short visit, but then can't take him home, he gets pissed off and turns against Will forever.

Meanwhile, Will has started testing a new, more powerful drug at his lab. There we meet this particularly nasty chimp with scars on his face. A bit of the drug is accidentally inhaled by Will's assistant, who will soon become sick, as we learn that while the drug is fine for primates, it soon turns fatal for humans. Caesar is getting uppity at the facility, and the orangutan advises him that chimps won't band with him because they're basically stupid. So he escapes, goes to Will's house, and steals some of the secret formula, releasing it into the air of the chimp facility. You also have to ignore the fact that the amount he stole wouldn't have that great an effect on that many chimps, but by the next day, we see all the inhabitants of the facility exchange knowing glances with Ceasar, their intelligence vastly raised overnight. Uh-oh, I think a rebellion's brewing!

It finally boils over, in scenes that are extremely satisfying. First Caesar gains dominance over the leader of the chimp pack, a scene that draw applause from my audience. Then one night he overcomes the cruel caretaker, at which point he speaks one word that brings the house down. Animals in films are often the underdog, and this movie gets a lot of energy from seeing them finally have enough, cross the line and start to fight back. The primates escape, and here's where the movie goes from amusing to super-fun!

The movie has smartly been structured with an ever-rising movement toward bigger action, which gives it a great momentum and essentially saves the best for last. It also includes a number of smart and striking visuals, such as an overhead shot of a hill with a bunch of bushes, then you notice the bushes are moving, then you say "Holy shit, those are all apes!" There's also a good shot down a suburban street where a sudden rain of leaves falls. The leaves were good, but what I liked best was an area of sunlight on the ground, where you can see the shadows of the primates passing overhead. Then: Rampage of San Francisco! And as I'm sure you know, almost every time you have a rampage, you have fun. It all builds toward a showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is big and fun and suitably epic. There is a final sendoff to Will, with Caesar speaking once more, to great effect, and that's it. You will notice that the music is quite triumphant about Caesar's triumph and liberation, which is a bit curious given that we're describing the end of humanity as we know it.

We have an initial set of credits, then see a guy we know is infected with the same compound that makes the chimps smart (but kills humans), then finish the credits as a graphic replicates an airline route map, showing how the virus spreads around the world and kills off humanity.

It was quite, quite entertaining, and has risen in my estimation of its cleverness as I have gone over it for this review, which is relatively rare. For one, as I said it is smartly structured to become more and more exciting as it wears on. This is in contrast to the bulk of contemporary blockbusters that are so packed with mega-showpieces that the climax of the film has to struggle to make an impact. Furthermore, the morals of the film are complicated enough to remain interesting. Will is directly responsible for the end of humanity--yet he remains sympathetic right to the end, and we can understand his motivations every step of the way. It also must be noted that he becomes completely irrelevant to the story about three-quarters of the way through, and his presence at the bridge showdown feels a little forced, although his final scene with Caesar provides excellent closure.

Then there's the interesting aspect of having a cheerful little thriller that is quite delighted by the prospect of the end of humanity. Preceding the film was a trailer for a contagion thriller about a biological plague that wipes out humanity, directed by Steven Soderbergh, causing one to reflect that contagion thrillers have apparently become their own little mini-genre. This film latches to the inherent underdog status of animals and our sympathy for how they've been mistreated by humanity, and posits that maybe it's time for them to take dominance. I find it a little curious for a genre to find success in people thrilling to the prospect of their own destruction. In this way it's a bit like movies about tourist hate like Hostel or Turistas, where TOURISTS are encouraged to get off on how obnoxious tourists deserve to be tortured and die. Here we're encouraged to get off on the end of humanity. I think what these movies play on, however, is the feeling of superiority over one's fellow man one can have. Therefore, you can enjoy Hostel because THEY are obnoxious tourists, while YOU are a thoughtful, respectful tourist. Similarly, here you can enjoy seeing primates take over society because the people we see suffering don't respect animals, while WE do. I think that's why the focus in this movie is on the triumph of the apes, and the end of humanity is placed as a distant side effect (it DOES occur after the credits have started, after all).

Anyway, a nice little thriller that is thrilling and refreshingly not stupid. It's involving, the story is well thought-out, it has a great momentum, there's a rampage, the characters are well-drawn, everyone's motivations are complex and make sense, and it's all just really thoughtfully made. I kind of want to see it again after writing this.

Should you watch it: 

Yeah, you deserve a little fun.