Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the most surprising film of the summer. The mere mention of the film brought out of me a mirthless sigh, “Why is Hollywood doing this again?” I had the terrible misfortune of seeing the Tim Burton/Mark Walhberg remake- what a waste of time, talent and money. Yet, everybody who caught Rise reported it being one of the best films of the summer, if not the year. After seeing it for myself, I have to agree. Rise of the Planet of the Apes not only launches another intriguing franchise for a new generation taking full advantage of remarkable film technology, but it also is a riveting action story exploring the themes of freedom, ethics of animal testing, and leadership.
Will (James Franco) is on the verge of discovering a cure for Alzheimer’s disease through some breakthrough genetic testing on apes. He’s personally invested in the project having to watch his father (John Lithgow) slowly lose his faculties from the illness. Will’s promising work comes to a halt when their prime ape subject, a female ape called Bright Eyes, destroys the lab in a maternal motivated rampage. Will takes Bright Eyes’ offspring home, seeing his accelerated intelligence and development within a few days. Naming the young ape Caesar, Will and his dad raise it as their own while Will starts using the treatments responsible for Caesar’s advanced state on his father.
For a while the dangers of playing with nature evade Will. His father is sharp and well again, while Caesar is a remarkable creature and friend to him. Will derives joy from teaching Caesar to use sign language and taking him to the nearby Redwoods to enjoy swinging from the high beautiful trees. Yet, all of Caesar’s days end in being put back in Will’s attic, staring out the window at life happening outside. Will’s idyllic existence comes crashing down when Caesar, now a forbidding powerful animal, attacks a neighbor in defense of Will’s father. Caesar is forced out of his home and sent to live at an animal control facility under the cruel treatment of a sadistic youth, Dodge played by Tom Felton. Caesar’s early days away from Will are quite heartbreaking. He draws the shape of his familiar window on the wall of his cramped cell, gazing at it to find some comfort in this dark place.
Spending more time among the apes, getting harsh tutelage in power from Dodge, and surveying the potential strength in his fellow apes; Caesar begins to apply his advanced intelligence to escaping- not to the comfortable captivity of Will’s attic, but to something more. Caesar begins organizing the apes, building alliances, and arming them with the drug that makes him so smart. Seeing his time to strike, he provokes Dodge and his handy stunner in a fight. In taking Dodge down, Caesar shocks us uttering a guttural and determined, “No” (to which I responded too audibly in the theater, “Whoa”). This ape-human combat riles up all the apes to make a dramatic, thrilling, but also quite tense prison breakout and clash with police. The effects here are spectacular, making you feel for these apes and scorn the humans. Caesar proves to be an incredible leader, outsmarting the police in a siege on the Golden Gate Bridge. Breaking down the cops’ stronghold, Caesar leads his companion apes to the Redwoods, climbing to the highest tree, gazing out onto the endless horizon- the only view fit for a free creature.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is visually dazzling in its way of bringing each ape to life and making their violent clashes completely believable. Andy Serkis does a mind blowing job of bringing Caesar to life, showing a full range of emotion and eliciting empathy and even respect. I agree that Serkis deserves awards consideration for his performance. While a film like Avatar wonderfully employed technology and captured human expressions and movement on screen, there was nothing to grab onto after the thrills ended. Here Rise actually deals with questions of animal treatment and what it really means to be free.
We keep returning to Caesar’s view of the world. In Will’s attic, he can see and participate in a small portion of life. Being at the Redwoods expands his reach, but he still has to walk home on a leash, like a pet. His melancholy realizing his constraints is palpable. Serkis brilliantly conveys Caesar’s sharpening anger when he’s held by Dodge. In the facility, Caesar moves from sorrowful confusion to outright anger then finally to a calm, calculated coolness that drives the film home to its spectacular conclusion. Seeing Caesar atop those Redwoods like a master of his life and community was a beautiful and powerful image. We too would prefer and fight for that endless horizon, true freedom, and real control over our destiny. The film provokes questions of animal testing and using other beings for our benefit without preaching or getting sidetracked from the action story. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, like Caesar, packs a punch under-girded by its intelligence.