We just went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which for those of you who aren’t familiar with the franchise, is a prequel to the 1968 classic movie Planet of the Apes starring Charlton Heston (which is available on Netflix Canada). Rotten Tomatoes gave it a 80% rating, and I think that’s about right, it’s not a perfect film (I’ll explain why in a moment), but it is a very good film overall. Having seen pretty much every Summer blockbuster this year (Thor, Captain America, Harry Potter, X-Men:FC, and others) I think this film is probably just a little ahead of X-men as my favorite film of the year so far.
If you don’t know the story of the film, watching the trailer will explain it nicely-
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s get to specifics-
The main character of the film is not James Franco’s character (whose name I can’t even remember), it’s Ceasar the ape, and the film works because you come to see everything from his point of view. His point of view is also not a human perspective, because he isn’t human (obviously) and he isn’t becoming human, he’s still an ape- just an extremely smart one. The makers of this film did an incredible job of balancing Ceasar’s “humanity” (because he was raised by humans) and his ape-ness, which they bring across through incredible body language. You know what Ceasar is thinking for most of the film, even though he doesn’t speak, and yet he never seems anything but an ape.
The sheer strength of this film is such that we the human audience actually spend the movie rooting for the apes and feel much more sympathy for them than we do the human cast. On a logical level, the Apes are a threat to humanity, but on a visceral and emotional level they are the underdog and we naturally want them to have their chance to make a future for themselves.
Unlike most of the other films I’ve seen this Summer, this one also takes it’s time and doesn’t try to rush us through the development of the main character with a goal of getting to the action as quickly as possible. The ape character(s) grow slowly and naturally, and leave you with a sense of wonder at how lifelike they are. In a way, this makes it one of the strongest films against animal cruelty and testing I’ve seen because it isn’t actually trying to make any kind of stand on the topic. You come to resent the humans using animals to experiment on because you empathize so much with the animals, not because anyone ever says a single thing about it being bad.
If there is any failure in this film, it’s the human cast. As I said, this is Ceasar’s movie, and with the possible exception of John Lithgow (who is always amazing) the rest of the human cast is mostly wasted screentime we spend waiting until we get to see more of Ceasar. James Franco’s character is fine, and his obligatory love interest is okay, but the other characters seem so….flat. Franco’s “evil” corporate boss is so wishy-washy that you don’t even get a thrill when he suffers his fate, you just kinda shrug your shoulders and assume he deserved it because he’s a corporate type. (I suspect there was scenes of him actually doing something bad to the experimental ape, but they likely got cut.)
The real wastes of the film are Brian Cox and David Hewlett, both great character actors with lots of presence and personality who are really wasted in this film. Their roles could easily have been played by other unknown actors and it would have made no difference at all, which really sucked. Brian Cox should have been the evil zookeeper, and would have been amazing in the role as he chewed the scenery. Instead he’s just a working stiff, and they leave the douchbaggery to his character’s son who isn’t a very good actor. And David “Rodney McKay” Hewlett got like 3-4 lines in the whole film as a generic unlikable neighbour- this for a man who can hold audiences spellbound with non-stop talking for hours at a time! (Well, he at least did get to do one important thing…)
Besides the ho-hum human cast, there is one other thing that didn’t quite sit well with me in this film- they made the world really really small.
In the end, the same viral gene therapy that uplifts the Apes into human+ IQ levels is lethal to humans, so as the Apes are beginning their ascent the human race is about to get decimated. This works fine for explaining how a few hundred Apes will one day rule the planet, but to me it tied things together a little too neatly. It’s like discovering the entire main cast of a movie is all distant relatives- it makes the setting feel really small and self-contained. Rise of the Apes isn’t the worst offender of this I’ve seen, but having these two things tied together was just a tiny bit too much for me. Not enough to keep me from enjoying the movie, but enough to keep me from considering the masterpiece it almost is.
I was thinking after the film what movie I would compare Rise of the Apes to, and I think the movie that it makes me feel most like emotionally is Braveheart. It’s got that epic feeling of watching a young warrior become a great leader, and you really become attached to him and his band of freedom fighters. So much so that I couldn’t help but shed a tear or two at the tragic end in the final confrontation. (Much like Braveheart.) It’s not quite as good as Braveheart in the end, but boy does it come close.