"Take your stinking paws off me you damn, dirty ape!"
First things first, the title is stupid beyond words. There's seven words and four of them are "of the." It's a classic case of Hollywood thinking that people are stupid and won't know that Rise of the Apes is a Planet of the Apes movie, so they have to add more words to the title. Granted, there's a lot of stupid people in this world, but it's no excuse for clumsy titling. Once you get past the stupid title, there's actually a gem of a sci-fi action film to be discovered here.
The film falls squarely into a category of it's own. It's not a remake, although it tells a story that's been covered in the series before with Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It's not a reboot, because it's very clearly indebted to its forebears, and references them whenever it gets a chance (my favorite example being when Caesar is assembling a Statue of Liberty puzzle). It's pretty much a true prequel to the original 1968 original, though it leaves room for a sequel to squeeze as much from this franchise as humanly possible.
James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist who is working on a cure for Alzheimer's, presumably to cure his own father (John Lithgow). One of the apes, Bright Eyes, that they've been administering his serum to gives birth to a baby ape, and on the day of Will's big presentation to the board, Bright Eyes freaks out while protecting her baby, and is gunned down by a security guard. Will takes the baby ape, Caesar, home with him and discovers that the traits from the serum given to his mother have been passed to him genetically. He begins advancing at a rapid rate and becomes a super smart ape. Will has also begun giving the serum to his father, and he improves virtually overnight.
As time goes on, Caesar thrives, as does Will's father, but Will discovers that the disease combats the serum over time and soon, his father's disease comes back. One day when their neighbor gets into an altercation with the father, Caesar moves to protect the father and bites the neighbor's finger off. Caesar is ordered to go to an ape sanctuary and cannot live with the Rodmans anymore. The sanctuary is run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his tyrannical son Dodge (Tom Felton, whom I hope gets the chance to play a good guy at some point, lest he risk playing assholes for the rest of time).
At first Caesar is an outcast because of his integration into human society, but soon he proves that he is smarter than the other apes and earns their loyalty. Will meanwhile has begun developing a new strand of his treatment, but unbeknownst to him, it's toxic to humans. Caesar escapes the sanctuary one night, returning to Will's house and stealing the new serum. He returns, gives it to the apes, and begins training them for war.
It's so easy to pick sides in a film like this because the villains are drawn with such broad strokes that it's impossible to root for anyone besides the characters the filmmakers have chosen for you to root for. Avatar is another such film like that. I'm not saying this is a bad thing, it's been happening for as long as there's been drama, it just throws the balance off. You find yourself rooting for the apes because all the humans are assholes. Of course, this is what the original did in reverse, it forced you to root for Taylor because Chuck Heston looked so good in that loincloth.
Let's talk about the 800 pound gorilla in the room, and that's Andy Serkis. The man is undoubtedly talented and a master at what he does, but that doesn't mean he should win an Oscar for it. A nomination would at the very least be a step towards legitimizing performance capture, but that puts entirely too much value on the Oscar itself. I understand it's symbolic and is a validation of your work by your peers, but the Academy has never been known for championing the cutting-edge, daring and truly great films. They get it wrong 90% of the time. He'll get nominated when he's 70 and playing Caesar in Return of the Conquest of the Battle of the Planet of the Apes.
So why do I like this film so much? It's because it's both visceral and cerebral and plays both sides of that coin so well. The technical work done on the film by the mo-cap performers and visual effects artists is outstanding. It's also very visceral, like I said, and plays to your base instincts. You find yourself cheering the apes as they take back what's theirs, and it's a great popcorn flick, arguably the best one released this past summer.
The human performers are also uniformly good. James Franco has a knowing, winking sort of demeanor in everything he does, but it works here. It's like he knows it's not Shakespeare, but that's not going to stop him from committing to it like it is. John Lithgow is great in everything, and this is no exception. He's another fully committed actor and I always look forward to seeing him on film. Director Rupert Wyatt has a big future in front of him as an action director, and I also look forward to what the future holds for him.
On a side note, I would love to see a side movie about the Rodman's neighbor. The guy somehow manages to always be in the thick of misfortune. I was waiting for him and his family to be picnicking in the Redwood forest at the end when the apes took it over. It would have been awesome. It'd make a great short, if nothing else, to show this normal guy, having trouble at home, trying to keep his temper in check, and always getting set off by his weirdo neighbors who've been keeping a chimp as a pet. Someone make this movie, please.
Tomorrow we'll look at my number seven film of 2011, George Clooney's The Ides of March featuring the best ensemble cast of the year.