The Planet of the Apes film franchise consists of, to date, eight films released between 1968 and 2014. Each week, venerable Apes mega-fan Max Robinson and inquisitive newcomer Dylan Roth journey to the center of the Planet of the Apes experience, one movie at a time. This is Turn Around, Bright Eyes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
SYNOPSIS: What’s a reboot of a reboot? The year is 2011: President Barack Obama has announced Osama Bin Laden’s death during a late night military operation in Pakistan and, incredibly, there’s a new Planet of the Apes film. Alzheimer’s researcher Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) grows to love orphaned lab ape Caesar (mocap performance by Andy Serkis) like a son. But can the unusually intelligent Caesar be accepted by both human and ape OR WILL HE HAVE TO TEAR IT ALL DOWN? Also, humanity is wiped out by an ape plague.
Max: NOW we’re talking. Rise of the Planet of the Apes begs the question “Are we allowed to have good ape movies?”. The answer here is pretty much yes. This movie is largely dope. Easily the best movie about John Lithgow playing someone’s Alzheimer’s-stricken father.
Dylan: I remember seeing the trailer for this movie, which heavily emphasized the third act action climax, and thinking “sure, that looks cool,” but also “thanks for showing me what I’m sure will be the best part of the movie.” And while I wasn’t outright wrong, the movie on the whole roundly exceeded my expectations. A far cry from the mindless doldrum of Burton’s remake, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is good sci-fi that provides some interesting ideas and really cool action that only apes can deliver.
Max: It was a nice change of pace to get a movie with lead characters who like and care about each other. Rises’ script makes some very odd chocies, but the entire thing works on the basis that you’re really invested in Will and Caesar’s relationship. The movie does a great job establishing this unusual parent-child relationship and then tearing it apart at the seams once Caesar starts wearing baggy JNCO jeans and bucking at being treated like a pet.
Dylan: Caesar is a character with a really compelling arc, and while James Franco’s Will is comparably bland, he does serve as an important part of who Caesar is. Caesar is a sweet, compassionate (ape) kid who ends up thrown in an (ape) orphanage with the mean (ape) kids and decides not just to survive, but to lead and liberate them. He could have escaped on his own, but that’s not what he wants; Caesar can’t abide that kind of injustice. That makes him a real hero. Will is just kind of a dummy who ends the world.
Max: Franco playing a biotech scientist is some Dr. Christmas Jones level miscasting but he’s a competent enough actor that you can roll with all the “ALZ-112 is a breakthrough!” nonsense dialogue he has to spout. Man, I feel like between this and the three Spider-Man movies Franco’s whole career is bullshit about serums. Dylan, you mentioned the weird time jumps this movie does as we were watching. To wit: the fuck is up with that, anyway?
Dylan: Ah, yes; this is a movie in which impossibly poor safety procedures in a biotech lab lead to the viral apocalypse and yet the thing that bothers me most about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is its completely ludicrous sense of time. The film takes place over the course of eight years, but the time jumps only exist to account for Caesar’s aging. Apart from Caesar, the movie completely stands still; Will still has his job at the same lab with the same set of people despite never really showing up for work, Will’s relationship with his girlfriend (who he meets in Year Two) doesn’t seem to evolve at all, and we’re not even graced with the lazy Important Haircut trope. Caesar might has well have grown up over a long weekend.
It’s only once he gets arrested for Ape-on-Man violence that the movie really gets going, by which point there are no more time jumps. They could really have just started the movie there and had a few short flashbacks to account for the backstory.
Max: It almost feels like a decision made in post-production? It’d have been nice to maybe show how Will’s aging adult life is diverging from Caesar’s before the whole ape revolution thing goes down. Rise never really seems to totally know what to do with Will’s job at Gen-Sys/his evil boss Earth 3 Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo). Like, Will’s project gets shut down because a scared ape’s suicide by cop ruins a meeting? Why? Will develops a virus that can cure Alzheimer’s and E3 MLK doesn’t even seem give a shit until Will says it works? Like, huh? I *do* like that a California biotech firm is responsible for dooming humanity; that’s probably the best way you could update the underlying story of Planet of the Apes.
Dylan: As a semi-remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which told the Prime Universe’s Ape Origins, Rise is absolutely an improvement. Not only is Serkis’s Caesar a much more interesting character than McDowell’s but we also get a story of aperising that is more scientifically plausible and emotionally real. Rise’s secondary ape characters have a personality and intelligence to them even before Caesar uses the ALZ-113 to unlock their brains’ potential.
Max: So many quality apes in this movie!!! The different inhabitants of the inexplicable San Francisco halfway house for apes/Gen-Sys labs are very distinct characters: the wise and friendly Maurice the Orangutan or mean bald alpha-male ape Rocket. We also get a decent introduction to Koba, an ape whose entire deal is being vaguely menacing at all times (and who gets significantly more to do in the sequel to this film). Koba’s weirdly antagonistic relationship with Will’s boss is like a fun little Black Mirror episode except instead of an ape shaming a man on Facebook he kills him with a helicopter.
Dylan: Which leads us to that grand action finale we mentioned earlier, in which Caesar’s tribe of genetically-modified apes marches across the Golden Gate Bridge toward the redwood forest, and are confronted by the most formidable law enforcement agency available: the California Highway Patrol! This fight sequence is a marvel, easily balancing out the weak opening act. Not only is it visually and conceptually imaginative, but also there’s a real emotional weight to it. The death of Buck the Gorilla is a gut punch that lands perfectly, a real accomplishment considering he’s a CGI ape with no lines.
Max: I want to stress this again that THE EMOTIONAL CLIMAX OF THE FILM is a gorilla bravely sacrificing his life—HIS BODY IS RIDDLED WITH BULLETS AS HE DESTROYS A HELICOPTER—so that all of apekind can be free. I’m literally tearing up as I write this.
Dylan: I checked, this is true. There are tears.
Max: But yeah this entire sequence is essentially perfect. We watch Caesar’s army take down these completely baffled human lawmen with improvised weapons and ACTUAL STRATEGY. Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ big reveal (besides the moment Caesar finally says “NO”) is APES ON MOTHERFUCKING HORSEBACK. This is a movie that is simultaneously so far removed from the familiar plot of the original Planet of the Apes films and yet it gets what makes the better Apes movies so compelling. The success of the film really is in the fact that you 100% root for the apes in this last third.
Dylan: It makes me think that the mostly flat, flavorless human characters were a deliberate choice. It’s so much easier to relate to the apes, who are these forces of nature imprisoned by society and finally set loose on the world, than it is to, uh, Hot Scientist who is Very Very Bad at Science to a Downright Biblical Extent. And with the exception of Oyelowo and Brian Cox, who each get very little to do, there are no heavy hitters in the human cast, whereas the mo-cap actors consist of Andy Serkis and his crew who are basically redefining the entire craft of acting.
Max: Don’t do John Lithgow dirty like this, he was in CLIFFHANGER. Alright Dylan, it’s time to do that voodoo you do so well: Which Ape Was Your Favorite Ape?
Dylan: Given that we actually have a number of interesting apes to choose from, it seems a little cheap to pick Caesar, who obviously has the most depth and gets the most to do. But I have to say, it’s crazy how attached I got to Buck considering how little screen time he actually gets. Even compared to Maurice or Rocket, Buck is a background figure. But Richard Riding’s performance conveys so much personality, so much MAJESTY in so little time that when he falls, goddamn, it makes the movie.
Max: A RARE UPSET. I was honestly kinda torn here, too, but Caesar gets my vote just off the incredible show-stopping power of that “NO!” Serkis roars. It’s good to have choice! We’re in the home stretch, Dylan…and next week we get to the best Planet of the Apes ever.
Dylan: I’m so excited. Also, I’d like to take this opportunity to put this out there: CAESAR is SUPREME LEADER SNOKE. Hear me out…
Max: HNNN DYLAN…LOVE…STAR WARS…MORE THAN APES…MORE THAN HIS OWN WEBSITE.
Next week: THE DAWN….AND THE END.