Rise of the Planet of the Apes was the only Planet of the Apes movie I’d seen prior to this series of articles. Because I fucked up my schedule, I didn’t manage to rewatch it until I’d already seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Twice. (Stick around for that later this week.) I remember being fairly impressed by the film the first time around. I was surprised how it held up in comparison to the rest of the series.
The film is very much a prequel. It shows Caesar’s origin, the origin of the smart apes, and sets up the downfall of humanity. It’s a solidly functional movie in a lot of ways.
The effects haven’t aged as well as I would have hoped. Admittedly some of that may have been my laptop screen, which somehow lessens the impact of every VFX shot in a rather remarkable way, but there were definitely some weak moments. Especially in comparison to Dawn there’s a sense that some of the subtleties of Andy Serkis’ performance aren’t quite being conveyed properly. That being said the apes, especially Caesar, still seem like real characters more often than not. In fact, in keeping with the classic tradition, the apes are far more compelling than the human characters – which is one of the problems with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I like James Franco a lot, especially in his weirder roles, but man he gets way too much screen time in this movie. He’s sort of like Mark Wahlberg in that he can’t really carry a traditional Hollywood leading role.
So instead he leads the movie for the first half or so, and Caesar carries the next half. It works pretty well, even if it feels a little clumsy. It needed another draft, some restructuring; maybe some more time spent with apes in the wild… something. Because the end result is that Franco’s half ends up being largely forgettable – excepting the major plot points with Caesar and the scenes with John Lithgow.
The second half is pretty good though. Caesar’s time in captivity and rise to power/escape is very compelling.
The whole movie is essentially super basic storytelling executed fairly well. There are no surprises here, no experimentation, and no real glimmers of insanity. Just simple, straightforward character arcs and plotting. Of course in a blockbuster this is weirdly rare and, when combined with the powers of manipulation a bunch of animal characters lends the film, it creates something that generates immediate emotional attachment. I mean, what more do you need?
Well, some better direction, for one thing.
Rupert Wyatt hasn’t directed much else and he makes some surprisingly poor choices in this film. Despite the fact that it’s a wonderful testament to the power of basic storytelling, the crude direction and smattering of odd decisions actually deadens some of the film’s effect in weird places. It’s almost like Rupert Wyatt is carefully working to undermine the audience’s connection with the characters, but for no real reason. A lot of these choices are visual, and while at first glance one might be tempted to rest the blame at the feet of the cinematographer, Andrew Lesnie, the man is responsible for far too many acclaimed projects (he’s Peter Jackson’s cinematographer of choice) for that to entirely be fair. Plus the visual difference between The Hobbit films and the Lord of the Rings films alone show his style is likely to change heavily depending on the director. So we come back to our man Rupert Wyatt! Here’s some more concrete examples of the sorts of bad choices he makes:
WHAT’S UP WITH STEVEN JACOBS? Steven Jacobs is the Gen-Sys executive responsible for keeping James Franco’s experiments. David Oyelowo plays him, and just by scrolling through his IMDb page I find it hard to believe he’s a bad actor (Interstellar!). He so underplays his character here that it completely robs a ton of scenes of all impact, especially the finale (more on that in a second). Put simply, the character, in this very basic story, needs to be more of a villain. Or at least occasionally hit more villainous notes. He doesn’t have to be a monster or anything, but it should feel more like a triumph when Koba kills him and less like vaguely unnecessary crossfire. But not so unnecessary that it feels like a statement.
IS CAESAR A SYMPATHETIC MONSTER OR OUR MAIN CHARACTER? Seriously this movie cannot decide. At all. The first half or so of the movie sees him essentially filling the role of sympathetic monster, like a Frankenstein type archetype. This does seem to be a fairly common trope in movies that take wild animals out of their environments and makes them pets, but I’d argue that Caesar’s intelligence pushes it over into Frankenstein territory. Basically Caesar is a good little mutant chimp who gets confused and angry and lashes out and is driven to do bad things because he’s been mistreated. At first it seems like an effective trope to riff on, but it contributes to the confusion the finale suffers from.
THE ENDING. This movie pretty much perfectly sets itself up for a triumphant and cathartic ending. What ensures the audience will be on your side more than letting a bunch of abused animals strike back? That’s like a cheat code for emotional attachment right there (which is why it would be a perfect opportunity to subvert this desire, but we’ll get to that too). But then Rupert Wyatt has a bunch of shots that frame the apes like horror movie villains. They slink into frame and disappear into fog and jump out of unexpected places. Basically, this concluding fight, one so beautifully set up to feel like an incredibly satisfactory win for the apes, is presented from the human point-of-view. Which sounds like it could be interesting but is instead totally soft-balled and the scene ends up coasting on our attachment to the characters and doesn’t feel as cathartic as it could or as shocking as it maybe should.
Maybe that’s what most stood out to me upon rewatching Rise of the Planet of the Apes – it’s not really a proper Planet of the Apes movie.
Which isn’t to say it’s a bad addition to the series or anything. I still stand by my claim that it counts as one of the superior films in the Apes series, but it doesn’t really fit in the way I’d like.
For one thing the thematics are just too bland and on the nose. A big part of what makes the series unique is their thematics. Most of the films have topical yet nearly perpetually relevant thematic through-lines. They all use the ridiculous science fiction premise to comment on society and people and world affairs. Rise of the Planets of the Apes takes the safest, most obvious route imaginable with a thematic point that amounts to “animals belong in the wild and maybe also we shouldn’t abuse them too much you guys.” There’s a lot of set up that could’ve led to some interesting commentary on animal testing, but it never really goes anywhere. It’s just too narrow and obvious a focus for a Planet of the Apes movie.
Which also means the ending hits way too gently. If there’s anything the Planet of the Apes movies have in spades, it’s bleak, heavy handed, delightfully powerful endings. The Planet of the Apes, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes all conclude with brutal thematic-gut punches. Actually leaning in to the weird disconnect the ending brings and presenting the apes rebellion as something fearful and unpleasant might have been interesting. But instead the ending is light-handed and almost inconsequential in every which direction. Hell the destruction of the human race basically plays out underneath the credits as an infographic.
There also aren’t nearly enough apes. Really only Caesar gets more than a broad brushstroke of characterization. The movie definitely needed to cast the human characters aside and purely zero in on Caesar. Not to do obnoxious couch-rewritings but here’s what I feel would have helped this movie work a little better:
ONE: Showing us apes in the wild. We only see apes in captivity. I can’t help but think that having Caesar come from the wild would’ve helped established how much his captivity sucked. Or maybe not Caesar but a longer and more powerful scene with his mother would’ve served the same purpose. Letting the redwoods hit the audience as a reminder of the forest would’ve surely helped, as opposed to essentially only letting them contrast Caesar’s good home life.
TWO: Let James Franco be a secondary character. Sure John Lithgow’s subplot is sad and all, but it never really leads anywhere thematically in the long run. Letting the movie follow Caesar’s point of view all the way through, or crafting a cleaner more effective break between the human half and the ape half, would’ve gone a long way to keeping the movie’s blander stretches compelling.
THREE: Sort the ending out. Either cast the apes’ final actions as shockingly cruel or triumphant and satisfying. Make Franco’s involvement way more important.
But please, don’t mistake these complaints as me being overly dismissive of what is a fairly good movie. Rise of the Planet of the Apes really does serve as a testament to how well the basic tenets of storytelling work. It’s engaging, entertaining, and emotional. It’s just not as engaging, as entertaining, or as emotional as it could have been.
Bit of an interjection here – but there are far too many winking Planet of the Apes references. Sure, “get your stinking paws off me you damned dirty ape” serves as a nice bit of inversion – turning Heston’s moment of empowerment into a moment of abuse from a human, immediately followed by Caesar’s moment of empowerment. However the reference is still so obvious and distracting that it draws tension away from what could’ve been a far superior moment. The references to the Icarus are actually cute and harmless enough, but the rest of the references feel a little too distracting.
Motion capture Jesus Andy Serkis, is, naturally, incredible as Caesar. Sure the effects don’t always translate his acting completely properly, but it doesn’t matter. Caesar is still the best character in the whole movie by a mile. I’d love to see him fall into the same role Roddy McDowall did and continue to anchor a new revival of the Planet of the Ape’s franchise.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is basically a very simple, fairly effectively serviceable film. The occasionally clumsy direction and some problematic structure keep it from being great. It ends up feeling a little too much like a set-up for a better movie. Luckily that movie came out, and I’ll be talking about it very soon.