There are times when measured or cautious expectation of a film can work greatly in its favor. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the 2011 blockbuster reboot (of sorts) of the vaunted science fiction classic (and it’s admittedly less than vaunted sequels and Tim Burton reboot) directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Sliver, is a film that it would be difficult to find anyone, critic or fan alike, clamoring for its existence. Most must have assumed that Tim Burton’s 2001 adaptation killed the franchise dead (not that it had not been off the grid for decades), but only a scant ten years later, the industry has returned to the drawing board. It could have been the ascension of Inception just one summer previous that heralded the return of high-concept (non-superhero) science fiction blockbusters, or it could simply have been a strong script treatment. Either way, the apes were set to return to the screen.
Positioned as a prequel to the 1968 classic, Rise of the Planet of the Apes attempts to bridge the gap between modern human society and the planet of hyper-intelligent apes onto which Chuck Heston would eventually crash land. The catalyst is a scientist at a bio-tech firm named Will Rodman (James Franco), who is steeped in animal trials of a new drug that could be a cure for Alzheimer’s. When an ape showing shocking developments of memory and intelligence goes on a rampage and loses her life, her child is saved by Will and smuggled out of the facility. The young chimp, named Caesar (motion-captured by Andy Serkis) shows a precocious intelligence and serious empathy for his adopted family, only to have that ferocious desire to protect Will’s dementia-addled father (John Lithgow) land him in a shelter for wild apes that is more prison than habitat. Under the control of an unfeeling owner (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son (Tom Felton), the seeds of revolution grow in the young Caesar, who has seen the worst humanity has to offer, and cannot justify the mistreatment of his brethren.
During the 2011 awards season, a lot of ink was spilled over the efficacy of Andy Serkis’ performance being worthy of a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars. Watching the film makes it easy to see why. Already well-known for his work behind the scenes of Peter Jackson films (Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong in King Kong), Serkis’ role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a much meatier affair, and he takes full advantage of his prodigious talents to create an indelible screen presence. The ease of movement, the way he bridges the gap between chimpanzee actions and recognizable human traits without overly relying on either or crossing into the uncanny valley can only be experienced to be truly understood. The fact that the performance is almost entirely wordless ratchets up the degree of difficulty even further, but it is never in question what is going through Caesar’s mind. The worth of motion-captured or voice over work in relation to awards will likely be a debate for some time, but it would be foolish to deny the depth of skill that Serkis displays in this film.
Blockbusters can be a tricky thing to do right, but more often than not (when considering the most successful of them from a pure filmmaking perspective), the path to victory lies in a two-pronged approach of treating the material with respect and a confidence to add depth without concern for speaking over the audience. Again, Inception is the template here, as it broke the mold of the assumption that any and all blockbusters have to be from the Michael Bay School for Constant Explosions and Nothing Else in order to rake in the cash over the hot sweaty months. Generally, blockbusters have been the better for it, as it has allowed for a film like this to thrive and revel in its ability to resonate with the audience. Caesar is the key there, but Serkis’ work is not the only positive. Franco, who usually struggles a bit in more understated roles, is perfectly great here as the human lead, and it is tough to find a more enchanting villain than Brian Cox. The scientific maguffin that sparks the chimpanzee intellectual revolution is explained just enough to satisfy without insulting the audience or over-expositing into oblivion. It is a smart, energetic script that is not steeped in nostalgia (there are a few callbacks to the franchise, the cheesiest of which is instantly undercut by the most shocking moment of the film, which is a wonderful approach), and when the apes find their freedom and start to fight back against their oppressors, the action is powerful and animalistic in the way it should be. There is a dark and foggy mood to these scenes, and while the concept of having these sequences take place at night is well-worn and more than a little overdone, it makes sense in the context and the logic of the film’s plot that a daring escape would take place under the cover of darkness.
In many ways, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a template for not only how to successfully reboot a film franchise that has lain dormant, but how to make any big summer blockbuster. The formula has born fruit in elevating such films as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Edge of Tomorrow, two recent slices of high-concept science fiction with a flair unlike the majority of punishing dreck that is forced upon audiences as the summer months pass by. It could even be said that this is a better template than even Inception, which for all of its bluster still managed to keep audiences at an arm’s length a little too often with its maze-like structure. It is often the case that the most enjoyable cinematic experiences are the most surprising ones, and nothing could have prepared audiences for the fresh and vibrant take on a film no one ever thought they needed, or even wanted to see.