Several months back, when I’d first heard the WETA Digital, the New Zealand-based effects house who vaulted into the stratosphere following their work on fellow Kiwi Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, were taking their CGI know-how and helping Fox re-launch the much-beloved Planet of the Apes franchise, I was at once excited and a touch apprehensive. I have a love/hate relationship with CGI in films, especially ones in which the computer generated characters must interact with their human counterparts in a convincing manner. Even with Avatar – a film that, for me, was one of the most impressive visual spectacles I’d ever set my eyes on – I still didn’t “buy” the scenes in which the CGI creations intermingled with the flesh and blood actors and real world surroundings, but it was certainly a step in the right direction. Knowing what sort of scratch Cameron had to work with (seriously, the guy’s worth more than the gross domestic product of most small countries), I wondered how WETA would even come close to Avatar, let alone surpass it. Now, having seen Rise of the Planet of the Apes with my own eyes, I’ll never again doubt their abilities, for, not only have they managed to out-CGI Avatar; they’ve helped to make the most compelling, profound, and satisfying science fiction films I’ve seen in years.
James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a biopharmaceutical whiz-kid whose work on a miracle cure for Alzheimer’s (ALZ-112) has made him a rock star amongst his peers, and potential cash cow for his employers. A breakthrough involving one of his test chimps (named “Bright Eyes” – one of many clever allusions to The Planet of the Apes) gives Will the confidence to set up a presentation, but, when Bright Eyes inexplicably turns on her handlers and literally crashes the meeting before being gunned down in front of Will’s boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), as well as a host of the company’s investors, Jacobs demands that the rest of Will’s test subjects be euthanized and instructs him to start his research from scratch. While cleaning out the lab, however, Will discovers the reason behind Bright Eyes outburst; she’d given birth to a male chimp, and was instinctively protecting her baby. At the behest of the lab’s ape handler, Will takes the baby chimp to the home he shares with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father, Charles (John Lithgow), and immediately notices something different about the little ape his father has dubbed Caesar. It soon becomes apparent that Bright Eyes has handed down her chemically enhanced astuteness to her offspring, and, over the course of the next few months, Caesar exhibits a level of intelligence that far exceeds anything Will thought possible.
As Charles’ condition deteriorates, Will decides to treat him with the ALZ-112, despite it not being cleared for testing on humans. In a matter of hours, Charles’ symptoms have all but disappeared, and it seems that Will has not only cured his father, but has actually improved his cognitive function beyond that of what it was before he fell ill.
A few years pass, and a now-fully grown Caesar is no longer the cuddly chimp he used to be. He has questions about who he really is and where he came from. Will decides it’s time to reveal the truth to both Caesar and to his girlfriend, the compassionate veterinarian, Caroline (Freida Pinto), whom Will met after an accident involving Caesar and their brutish neighbor. Will also reveals the truth about his experiments on his father. It’s not long after that his father’s symptoms return, and his immune system is compromised is compromised by the drug. Matters are made worse when Charles, in a state of total confusion, wrecks his neighbor’s car, resulting in a confrontation with the neighbor that prompts a now fully grown Caesar to intervene, landing him in a primate holding facility overseen by the cold-hearted John Landon (Brian Cox) and his abusive son, Dodge (Tom Felton). It is here where Caesar truly learns what he is, and of the injustices that are committed against his species. Now, having made the choice between his human companions and his own kind, Caesar uses his intelligence to start a simian revolution as the drug designed to save mankind looks to become its downfall.
In a summer filled with blockbuster sequels and high profile superhero debuts, Rise of the Planet of the Apes snuck into August with comparatively little hype or fanfare, and I was really beginning to worry that this second attempt at rebooting the series (after Tim Burton’s borderline remake) was going to be littler more than an FX-laden hunk of eye candy. In truth, the film is nothing short of a cinematic revelation. It’s not only a stunning visual achievement, but also an emotionally stirring and thought-provoking piece of old school science fiction, with a third act that will have viewers of any species pounding their fists in the air and rooting on Caesar and his ape army. While the human actors all do a fine job in their respective roles (especially Lithgow, whose performance is absolutely heartbreaking), the real star of this film is Andy Serkis, whose motion captured performance brings the legendary ape to vivid life. While the CGI will get all of the (deserved) wows, it’s Serkis’ subtle expressions and movements that gives Caesar his soul. It’s the best performance of its kind that I’ve ever witnessed, and, CGI or not, easily one of the best performances of the year.
I’m thrilled to see an Apes film in which, as in the original, character and emotion are so deftly balanced with the sheer spectacle the subject demands. This is the kind of movie that made me fall in love with cinema in the first place, and, after watching it, I left the theater with a huge smile on my face and was overcome by a childlike sense of awe and wonder as I processed everything I’d just taken in. I started thinking about where the series could go from here, and the potential excited the hell out of me. I haven’t felt like that after watching a movie in quite some time, and, for that reason alone, Rise of the Planet of the Apes easily earns my highest possible recommendation.