Apes make great horror-movie monsters, with their big nasty teeth, their crazy shrieks and scary roars, their ability to jump out and go Boo! — but also because they so closely resemble humans that they are our feral siblings from an earlier mother, our funhouse mirror and primitive id. Moviemakers have played on this connection since the first King Kong in 1933, still the cinema’s greatest fable of enslaved majesty and doomed love. In the process they have advanced the medium’s capacity for magic, from Willis O’Brien’s stop-motion Kong to the monkey masks in the 1968 Planet of the Apes to Andy Serkis’ motion-capture performance in the title role of Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong.
As both a simian simile and a wonder of technology, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves to be in the company of the great original Kong. This year’s sixth “origins” story of a fantasy franchise (after The Green Hornet, Thor, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern and Captain America: The First Avenger) is also the year’s finest action movie. While preparing viewers for the slam-bang climactic showdown of apes and men on the Golden Gate Bridge, which everyone has seen in the trailers and which is pretty amazing, director Rupert Wyatt summons thrills in more artful fashion: the image of trees silently shedding their leaves — before a hundred apes drop from them to create havoc in a suburban neighborhood — or of the rampaging apes when they invade a zoo, dismantling a large metal fence and using the pickets as spears.
No question, the movie is an astounding triumph of visual effects. Again, Serkis is playing a motion-capture monkey — the prime primate, Caesar — and gives a performance so nuanced and powerful it may challenge the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give an Oscar to an actor who is never seen in the film. Hundreds of apes are onscreen in Rise, but no real ones were in the cast; all are humans, filmed and transformed through motion capture by Jackson’s Weta Digital, the effects company that has already won five Oscars (for the three Lord of the Rings films, the Kong remake and Avatar). So no chimps were harmed in the making of this picture. That earned Rise an early rave from the animal lovers at PETA, which proclaimed that the movie “sounds like a great contender for another Oscar for Weta, and perhaps a PETA Proggy Award too.”
The nicest surprise is how the husband-wife writing team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver keeps the movie’s genre motor running while creating a plangent parable of parenthood. Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco, back in the land of the living after his spectral appearance as Oscar co-host) has been using apes as test subjects in developing the drug ALZ-112, which he believes may cure Alzheimer’s. The disease gnaws at Will’s gut: his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from it. Will has also adopted Caesar, orphaned when his genetically enhanced mother was killed after running wild at Will’s lab; so he is nurturing both his impaired father and the chimp. As Charles disintegrates mentally, Caesar makes prodigious strides; in a lovely scene at the dinner table, Caesar notices that Charles is holding his fork the wrong way and gently reaches over to correct its position.
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Caesar is a lithe, bright youngster, both chimp and child. One long, graceful tracking shot shows him in Will’s kitchen, swinging on an overhead lamp to reach a cookie jar on a high shelf, then scampering to the hallway, leaping and pulling the cord to the attic trapdoor and vaulting upstairs. His five-year passage from youth to maturity is revealed in another dazzling sequence: on a stroll through Muir Woods, Will unleashes Caesar, and the chimp scampers up a redwood, climbing ever higher in a series of subtle dissolves until, reaching the top of the highest tree and staring across the bay at San Francisco, he is fully grown.
Like any precocious child, Caesar will learn from, outgrow and defy his doting, fearful “father.” But his first act of violence is in defense of his “grandfather.” When the addled Charles accidentally wrecks a neighbor’s car, and Caesar sees the man threatening Charles, the chimp vaults from the house in attack mode. That gets him sentenced to an animal shelter that is in fact an ape Alcatraz, stocked with ill-treated simian prisoners, an uncaring warden (Brian Cox) and a sadistic guard (Tom Felton, trumping the meanness of his Draco Malfoy character from the Harry Potter films). In this second act, Wyatt, whose previous feature was the prison-break movie The Escapist (also starring Cox), switches Rise’s gears from Born Free to The Shawshank Redemption.
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If the animal-shelter personnel had been as humane as Kevin James in Zookeeper, the apes might never have revolted. When Caesar first joins them, they are a surly, unmotivated lot, eager to demonstrate that his superior intellect and domesticated temperament are no match for their mighty brawn. But Caesar briefly escapes, returns to Will’s place to filch a supply of the wonder drug and gives it to the incarcerated chimps, plus an orangutan and a gorilla. As he liberates the apes, and triggers the irresistible rise promised in the title, the story becomes a political fable: a Marxist view of the oppressed masses edging toward revolution. The movie, while underlining Will’s kind nature and good intentions, has tilted audience sympathies toward the apes from the first scene, in which armed natives capture the chimps from their jungle home. The best drama comes from a collision of two good men; this time the conflict is between one good, brilliant man and one good, smarter chimp.
Will is of course Baron Frankenstein, an urge to improve life through science, and the ambition to achieve it by questionable means. The questions are posed mainly by Will’s girlfriend (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto), who is there mostly as the obligatory voice of Christian caution. (“You’re trying to control things not meant to be controlled,” and “Some things aren’t meant to be changed.”) He may feel like a father to Caesar, but he is also the colonial oppressor. It takes a while for Caesar to realize that his best self is not a near-human but the best chimp, and that his destiny is to lead his own people to freedom like a monkey Moses, a simian Spartacus.
Rise occasionally cites memorable moments from the first Planet of the Apes: in Bright Eyes, the name given Caesar’s mother (which was also what the evolved apes called Charlton Heston’s character in the 1968 film); in the harsh hosing of the imprisoned apes; and in the famous lines, “It’s a madhouse!” and “Take your stinkin’ paw off me, you damned dirty ape!” — which cues one of the most startling retorts in recent movie history. (I won’t tell; you have to see it.) But the creators of Rise are determined to make their own statement. The original film was a satire of race relations, in the decade of the Selma marches and Watts riots, with the haughty apes treating their human invaders as inferiors. Rise is a story of emancipation as seen from both sides: the human (sympathetic liberals incapable of stanching an armed revolt) and the simian (we gotta be free). The emotional connection between Franco and his primate companion, as well as his everlasting love for his fathers would inspire anyone to learn how to become a medical assistant after finishing the film.
Even if you don’t buy Rise as a semi-profound social document, the utterly seductive integration of apes and men should slacken your jaw in amazement. We have reached that moment in movie history when the century-long chasm between live-action and animation has been closed; Rise is a seamless blend of the two. It marks a major advance over Avatar, for it allows the motion-capture actors and the “real” ones to interact in natural locations — in the wild, so to speak — beyond Avatar’s enclosed fantasy land of the planet Pandora. Technical innovation is sometimes yoked to leaden narratives, but Wyatt and his collaborators made sure to wed their visual strategies to potent themes. The result is a work of high, often thrilling popular art.