Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver

It has been a very fun ride through the Planet of the Apes films, even if the returns have been uneven at best. Exploring such a fascinating sci-fi franchise, good or bad, is still a fun experiment where I get to see the source of its popularity, and how it does (or doesn’t) capitalize on this popularity to continue to make these films. After a somewhat failed “origin” trilogy in the original set of films, the franchise lie dormant for many year (likely for good reason), until Tim Burton completely butchered the product with his reimagined remake. So then why might Fox have brought the product back to summer blockbuster screens back in 2011? Well, the short and easy answer is money. The younger generation likely hadn’t seen the preceding films and this is right at the beginning of studios going into their catalog of IP to make cash grab pop movies. But I think also they found a really good script and likely a really good trilogy arc story from the filmmakers. I think that combination makes the new Planet of the Apes trilogy unique in its ability to resurrect a stale property and rise above being an easy studio cash grab. Very excited to delve into these films and discover the potential of what these films can be, and how they might improve upon the original “origin” trilogy of The Planet of the Apes.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a highly motivated pharmaceutical chemist who has been developing a new treatment for a disease very close to his heart. His father (John Lithgow) suffers from Alzheimer’s, and while caring for him in his San Francisco home, Will works to cure him by testing his latest product on apes. Early returns indicate that the drug is effective, but after the test apes go crazy, his boss Steven (David Oyelowo) shuts down the operation and discards of all the apes. But a child, Caesar (Andy Serkis) is discovered by lab tech Franklin (Tyler Labine) and Will takes him home to care for him, while also developing a new variant that effectively cures his father. But after Caesar attacks a neighbor who threatens him, Caesar is sent to a primate rescue, where his enhanced intelligence helps the apes rise against their evil caretakers (Brian Cox and Tom Felton), escaping to Muir Woods to live away from the humans. But the deadly variant doesn’t end there, as Franklin, now infected, starts the spread.

There are two major things to discuss about this movie, in my eyes. The first is that this is a really good movie which really does start anew and resurrect the franchise. It stands on its own, and while it throws in plenty of Easter eggs and nods to the previous films (“Get your filthy paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”), it creates its own story not beholden to the story we already know. In doing so it, for one, does away with the ridiculous concept of time travelling apes in an unexplained time loop somehow started the rise of the planet of the apes; but is also manages to tell its own cautionary tale which includes humans essentially being the creator of their own downfall, which to me rings far more true from everything I’ve observed of our species. The second thing is that, while being a really good movie and a fresh start for the franchise, it is still limited to being the installment that explores how it all started. By doing so, it has a certain limited ceiling that it cannot surpass as a truly transcendent, great movie. While not beholden to the traditions of the franchise, it is beholden to having to hit certain notes to setup the rest of the trilogy.

I’m really a fan of the construct that is created here as the origin of everything. It’s a very believable and organic way to introduce the concept of hyper-intelligent apes and start us down the track of them taking over as the dominant creature on the planet. If the past year has shown us anything, it’s definitely that human intelligence and dominance is in a very precarious position. But of course, this is the most pivotal setup needed to make the entire trilogy work. If this didn’t feel right, and believable, then any subsequent films would be a laughing stock. As per the new industry standard in the new millennium, blockbuster franchises aren’t really allowed to be silly and fun, they must be dark, brooding and emotionally resonate. And while I would mock this approach for some, it definitely seems to fit perfectly for what Planet of the Apes can be given a great script, and the script here is certainly among the best aspects of the film. It’s well thought out, well constructed, and the backbone of the film.

The cast is also strong here, and not to get ahead of myself, but the entire trilogy seems to attract top talent and casts, which I think speaks to the quality of the material as well (sure, they’re also cashing checks too, but I think my point remains). James Franco, while he hasn’t gone on to the stardom we might have thought he’d have at the time, was definitely having a moment in the early 2010s. John Lithgow, Brian Cox and David Oyelowo are always solid veterans as well. The real revelation here though is Andy Serkis and the CGI. Looking back a decade later, can you easily tell its CGI, yes. But it seems a great leap forward in the technology, especially as it pertains to motion capture performance from Andy Serkis, who does his thing, which is a thing that seemingly nobody else on the planet has been able to figure out. He is 1/1, unique and unmatched. So while Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be capped by its duty to setup the trilogy, it does just about as good as job as it could have as a stand alone film that manages to bring the franchise back to life and into the modern world.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

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