Rise of the Planet of the Apes offers one of the richest character arcs I’ve seen in quite some time. And I’m not talking about the scientist played by James Franco. I’m talking about the chimpanzee.
A reboot of the six-film franchise that was first brought to the screen with Charlton Heston in 1968, Rise explains how power first began to shift from humans to simians. We witness this through the life of a chimpanzee named Caesar. Born in a lab where a controlled virus gave him uncommon intelligence, Caesar is raised as a human child by a well-meaning scientist (Franco). As an adult, however, Caesar is taken away to a primate pound of sorts, where regular abuse begins to foster resentment, hatred and eventually the seeds of revolution.
Sound silly? Oh, but it works, thanks to deft storytelling and – above all – masterful special effects. For its chimpanzees – and orangutans and gorillas – Rise of the Planet of the Apes relies on motion-capture technology, in which actors provide the movements for characters whose final look is developed via computer animation. The breakthrough for this sort of effects work came with the character of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. And, indeed, not only is the same special-effects company at work here – Weta Digital – but the same actor who played Gollum plays Caesar: Andy Serkis.
It is, in all seriousness, an award-worthy performance. Yes, the computer animation is amazing – the eyes have a plaintive depth, the hair has individual bristles. But the things that truly connect us to Caesar as a being worthy of empathy are Serkis’ movements. Will, the scientist, occasionally brings Caesar to a redwood forest outside of San Francisco where he can freely roam. In the parking lot, however, he keeps the chimp on a leash. One day, after coming back from play and being leashed, Caesar gives a tug at his collar that communicates not only discomfort, but disdain. Told to get in the car, he then deliberately pauses before doing so in that passively aggressive way that defiant teenagers have.
“It’s appropriate to be afraid of him,” Will’s veterinarian girlfriend (Freida Pinto) tells him early on. The cleverness of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the way the movie gets us to sympathize with Caesar while also allowing him to creep us out. No matter how human he seems, he’s also always wild. Leading the charge in the climactic battle scene, Caesar is ferocious until Will calls out his name. He turns with a sudden look of confusion and surprise, not quite sure of how things got this far and what he’s become.
That climax – in which Caesar’s army of apes face off against the police on the Golden Gate Bridge – is a stunner, a military-style battle sequence that I can’t even begin to describe without making it sound silly. Yet the picture is so committed to its premise – and the effects are so convincing – that I had no trouble getting on board. It’s a rousing, expertly choreographed action sequence that puts chaotic disasters like the Transformers movies to shame.
The key, I think, is that by this point we’ve become emotionally involved (as also happens with the mother of all great ape pictures, King Kong). We’re not simply watching a high concept – something like cowboys fighting aliens. We’re watching the defining moment for a character we’ve come to care for. The fact that this character is a chimp simply makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes all the more impressive.
Rise is like King Kong in another way, one that suggests why these sorts of monkey movies continue to fascinate us. The best of them are tragic reminders of the ways we – that is, humans – have failed as caretakers of this world and its creatures. Kong, especially the original, details how a magnificent specimen is captured, exploited and killed at the hands of man. Rise of the Planet of the Apes raises the stakes, suggesting that our heedless attempt to exercise dominion over the natural world will ironically lead to our demise.
In a nice bookend, the movie both begins and ends with free apes in a forest. At the end, though, they’re much smarter and really ticked off. You almost cheer for them to take over and have their own go at stewarding the planet. They might just do a better job.