Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011): Rupert Wyatt’s Thrilling Origin Story

Technically, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the eagerly awaited sci-fi from Fox, is the most thrilling and entertaining spectacle adventure this summer.

Review of Tim Burton’s 2001 film

This origin story, intelligently scripted by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and vibrantly directed by Rupert Wyatt, complements nicely the original 1968 picture, “Planet of the Apes,“ which has become a cult movie, and is far superior to the four sequels of the series, as well as to Tim Burton’s 2001 update (or remake).

Call it technological determinism, but “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” could not have been made even three of four years ago. The turning point is James Cameron’s “Avatar” (also made by Fox), which invented a new technology (actually a new way of storytelling and filmmaking) and was then advanced and pushed forward. The movie contains some startling visual and sound effects seldom seen in Hollywood pictures.

“Rise of the Planet” is considered to be the first live-action feature in history to tell the story from the perspective of a creature, Caesar, and the fact that he is played/embodied by the great Andy Serkis makes the experience all the more rewarding.   Indeed, the film’s sophisticated technology is most evident in the extraordinary achievement of Andy Serkis, by now the world’s foremost performance capture actor, having done “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy as well as the 2005 remake of “King Kong” (both helmed by Peter Jackson). Serkis infuses Caesar, who becomes the lead character, with body, heart, and soul, not to mention nuance, wisdom and wit (More about Serkis later).

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is an  origin story, set in present day San Francisco, aiming to relate a cautionary tale about the limitations of scientific endeavor. The premise of the film is linked directly to central notions in former “Planet” pictures.  Humans’ bold experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of unprecedented intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for domination.

Like the first film, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” pits humans against nature, but also humans against themselves. (Remember Charlton Heston’s cursing mankind at the very last scene on the beach, after discovering  the ruins of the Statue of Liberty: “You finally really did it. You maniacs! You blew it up! God damn you! God damn you all to hell!”).

It’s a pleasure to report that, unlike most event flicks (largely about comic strip heroes), “Rise of the Planet” is not greedy in terms of running time and it doesn’t overstay its welcome.  Structurally, the narrative is divided into three parts, which differ in contents and tone. The first is mostly set in the research lab, the second in a confined space, sort of a prison, and the third take place largely outdoors, depicting a major escape and a rebellion.

The likeable James Franco (Oscar nominee for “127 Hours” and controversial Oscar show host) is well cast as Will Rodman, an ambitious scientist devoted to his research and career. Most of what we need to know about Will’s past, background, motivation, and work is conveyed in the first reel, which is both plot-oriented and character-driven.  It’s too bad that as the picture goes along, less and less attention is paid to characterization and substance and more to sheer spectacle, chase scenes and special effects, though they are all executed in a bravura style.

In the first hour, which includes many humanist touches and emotionally touching moments, Will dominates the proceedings. We witness how prior to Gen-Sys’s beginning of human trials of a promising new drug, ALZ-112, Will’s simian subjects suddenly display bizarrely aggressive, unpredictably dangerous behavior.  Driven by profit, the corrupt management deems the research a failure and orders Will to shut down his program after five years of hard work.

Franco portrays well a man who’s initially cold, isolated and career-driven. Things begin to change when he moves into his father’s place, which was his childhood home, to take care of the elderly man (very well played by character actor John Lithgow), who is suffering from dementia and is thus given to erratic behavior, like suddenly and ferociously playing the piano, or getting into his car while he is not supposed to drive. Being a caregiver is a role Will has never performed before, and initially he is not good at it.

Amidst the confusion of the study’s termination, Will finds himself charged with an overlooked newborn chimp, the newly orphaned offspring of his most promising test subject, Caesar. Will secretly raises young Caesar as his own, at home, while caring for his own father.

Will takes Caesar to Caroline, a primatologist who becomes his vet, and soon (too soon?) Will’s love interest. Though nicely played by the beautiful Freida Pinto (of “Slumdog Millionaire”), Carloine is the least developed character, sort of an obligatory inclusion of a femme in an otherwise male-dominated milieu so that the movie could also be marked as a romantic adventure and appeal to female viewers.

A major role reversal occurs in this process of what sociologists call resocialization. Will the son gradually becomes the father not only of his biological father Charles, but also the father to his baby chimp, who is clearly much more than a pet to him. From that point on, defying realism, the narrative goes out of its way to humanize Will, turning him from a strictly professional scientist to a sensitive human being to the point where he cares about Caesar more than about the success of the drug or his work.

The second chapter is largely set within the confines of the San Bruno Primate Sanctuary, where Will is forced to take Caesar after the latter creates havoc. The Sanctuary, sort of a dumping ground for unwanted and abandoned apes, run with a firm hand by Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton), a nasty, ruthless guard who mistreats and abuses the apes.

For a whole reel, we get a fascinating portrait of group dynamics. Though he is not the strongest ape in the facility, Caesar realizes that in order to survive he must use his extraordinary intelligence. A new coalition is formed and a new social order is established, with the newly dominant Caesar presiding over the fearsome male ape Rocket, a brooding angry gorilla named Buck, and, most touching of all, a psychologically damaged orangutan named Maurice, who use to perform in a circus. The tension between the apes and the (in) human guards builds up to a pivotal moment, in which Caesar stands up and retaliates against the cruel handlers. (The audience with which I saw the picture burst up with a huge spontaneous applause at this electrifying moment).

Unfortunately, as exciting as it is to watch, the last reel is totally devoted to the apes’ escape and the chaos caused by their revolution in taking over the entire city of San Francisco and its most iconic sites. This may not be surprising, considering that the director, a gifted craftsman, has previously made one feature, “The Escapist,” a British prison escape thriller. (To be fair, Wyatt is also a producer of a significant documentary, “Dark Days,” that we L.A. Film Critics members honored with the top award for best non-fiction).

But despite these flaws, there is a lot to praise and recommend. The first reel is extremely satisfying in detailing Will, his relationships, and his work. A scientist working within the large pharmaceutical corporation Gen-Sys, he conducts extensive (and expensive) genetic research to develop a benign virus that will restore damaged human brain tissue. It turns out that he is driven by both personal and professional factors.

As his name suggests, Will is committed to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s, a debilitating disease that affects his father, Charles (John Lithgow). In the beginning the two men are distanced from each other, and we are led to believe that Will’s relentless focus, the fact that he is all consumed by his scientific work, has precluded any meaningful relationships, with his father and with women. (Not to worry, during the course of the tale, which has its share of humanistic values and moralistic lessons, Will will rectify his conduct, pay for his sins, and sort of redeem himself).

Indeed, when the caretaker complains that Charles is too difficult and belongs to a home, Will moves back home to take care of his father. On one level, Rise of the Plant” is very much a father-son emotional melodrama, showing how Will’s research and his father’s illness has brought him closer to his father that he had ever been.

Remarkably, the filmmakers have used visual effects and performance capture work on practical locations outside the controlled environment of the studio and its enclosed stages. This has allowed the capture work to be integrated with the live action performance, eliminating the usual barriers that usually exist between visual effects and live action.

Unlike all the other “Planet” movies, this version is also noteworthy for its presentation of emotionally-engaging photo-realistic apes, several of which are given individualized look and personality.

The film’s locales are instantly recognizable and relatable, and several scenes set in the Red Woods and Golden Gate Bridge evoke strong (and for me pleasant) memories of other great films shot there.

Much like its predecessor, the new film uses the sci-fi genre to explore bigger worlds and bigger ideas. Problem is, most of the ideas are too familiar. This is especially the case of the two main villains of the story.

James Franco’s Will may be the tale’s nominal lead, but, ultimately, the real, heroic star of the film is Caesar. An ape with human-like qualities, Caesar can strategize, organize and eventually lead a whole revolution. Will all but disappears from the film’s last 40 minutes of so of the yarn, though he reappears at the very end.

Like the alien in Spielberg’s “E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial” provides real emotional bond with the audience, and a strong point of identification.

Most of the events unfold through the eyes of Caesar, an ultra-intelligent chimpanzee, the film’s only character who goes through a radical transformation. At a young age, Caesar sees Will and the other humans in a positive way, capable of and making wonderful things, like art, science, and reason. But then he begins to see the dark side of humanity, physical abuse, oppression, bigotry, and ostracizing outsider and outcasts.

The movie may be disingenuous, or perhaps pushing too hard its central morals, corporate greed and human arrogance in thinking that science can cheat, challenge, and circumvent the laws of nature (a too vague, sort of mythical concept in the story), without paying attention to issues of responsibility and consequences.

None of the sequels, “Beneath the Planet of the Apes,” “Escape from the Planet of the Apes,” “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes,” and “Battle for the Planet of the Apes,” lived up to the 1968 original movie.

Over the years the “Apes” series spiraled into self-parody. In 2001, Tim Burton directed another version of “Planet of the Apes,” which was commercially successful but artistically disappointing.

Spoiler Alert

The very last scene between Will and Caesar, an emotionally wrenching and fateful reunion after the epic escape, with it strong emphasis on the meaning of home, also recalls Spielberg’s “E.T.”