Why It Worked: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
There are a few science fiction franchises out there that are generally considered to be untouchable and above almost any reproach; classics, in every sense of the word. Never mind that some of them may have been diminished, watered down, or even ruined throughout the years, thanks to Hollywood's obsession with unnecessary spin-offs and prequels/sequels galore. But no matter how diluted certain franchises may have eventually become, the originals still manage to stick with us for any number of memorable reasons.
With the much-anticipated sequel already monkeying its way into theaters, join SauronsBANE1 as he takes an in-depth look at the out-of-nowhere 2011 reboot that caught so many audiences by surprise and find out why Rise of the Planet of the Apes worked so well...
Star Wars, Star Trek, the Alien franchise, Close Encounters, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Blade Runner, and E.T. are probably among the first sci/fi movies to jump to mind.
But I believe there's a strong case to be made for Planet of the Apes.
This is probably one of the more underappreciated epics that has ever come out of this specific genre of movies. With an all-encompassing story that flips everything we assume about nature and evolution (and our role in both) completely upside-down, with characters (both human and ape) that manage to leave indelible marks on the audience, and with a setting so otherworldly and alien that, had it not been fully ingrained in our minds by now thanks to countless movie parodies, we never could've anticipated the mind-blowing plot twist that was coming our way...this franchise is undoubtedly one of the most influential ones to ever impact our pop culture.
So with all that in mind, here's a couple of fair questions to ask: what exactly was the point in rebooting such a classic with Rise of the Planet of the Apes in 2011? What could possibly be gained out of a fresh take on an original idea that wouldn't exactly have the benefit of a shocking twist all these years later?
Well, modernizing a nearly 5-decade old franchise was undoubtedly at the forefront of the entire project. Having the ability to market the film to a built-in fanbase probably crossed the minds of Fox's executives as well. But the real reason, perhaps, was that there was an opportunity to create a soft reboot that paid homage to the originals while also managing to be its own thing entirely. Indeed, there's a wealth of social commentary, themes, and messages in the Apes films that were relevant back then...and are perhaps even more relevant now.
So maybe a better question would be: Why not reboot this particular classic?
Despite initial hesitation from significant portions of the general audience, it certainly didn't hurt that Rise of the Planet of the Apes proved to be a smart, engaging, emotional movie that managed to pleasantly surprise both critics and moviegoers alike, despite not exactly breaking any records at the box office.
Functioning as a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and as a sort of loose, unconnected prequel to Planet of the Apes, Rise manages to fill its hour and a half runtime with excellently-paced story and heart, while still putting the spotlight on the characters in order to tell the beginnings of a sweeping, epic, world-altering science fiction story. Without further ado, let's find out exactly why I believe Rise of the Planet of the Apes worked.
What Rise of the Planet of the Apes Did Right:
1) Focusing on the characters first.
Charles, Caesar, and Will:
Right from the opening scene, we're quickly introduced to the kind of film this reboot will be: a movie that takes the source material seriously while never losing sight of the importance of characters. The very first few images of a serene rainforest and a peaceful family of apes living in their natural environment suddenly shifts into a desperate frenzy, as we witness humans mercilessly hunt down and capture helpless primates in a fantastic bit of action that manages to help the audience sympathize with the apes from the start.
This isn't all that Rise accomplishes within the first 15 minutes, however. Director Rupert Wyatt made a conscious decision to make the dual stories of Caesar's growth and the recovery/relapse of Will Rodman's Alzheimer-ridden father, Charles, connected right from the start. Charles is responsible for giving Caesar his name, and it appears that Caesar plays in integral part in Charles' slow path to recovery again (literally the first 'person' that Charles wishes to see, once he realizes he isn't sick anymore, is Caesar). The direct result of this is that we sympathize and actively root for both characters...which is our window into growing to like Will as well.
The key to all of this is how seamlessly Charles' and Caesar's stories intersect and overlap. The movie makes the most of its first several scenes by laying the foundations as to why James Franco's character, Will, is so passionate and focused on creating a cure for Alzheimer's in the first place, and this is tied into the larger mythology of the Apes franchise by having the primates be the test subjects for such a cure.
There are several powerful moments early on, such as Will realizing that his five and a half years of hard work might be paying off as his ALZ-112 serum appears to be working successfully on the ape "Bright Eyes", his heartfelt pitch to the Board of Directors that occurs simultaneously with Bright Eyes' doomed escape from her cage and her brief rampage in the building, the immediate consequences of the Board rejecting his proposal and forcing Will to start from scratch again, and the stunning reveal that Bright Eyes wasn't acting aggressive as a result of a defective 112...she was just being protective of her newborn baby.
Will chooses to do the 'right' thing and take the infant home with him rather than heartlessly putting it down, which his boss Steven Jacobs instructs him to do with all the apes. Little does Will know that this moment of kindness will end up becoming perhaps the single biggest turning point in the history of mankind.
Three years later, Caesar grows into a playful, active, inquisitive little ape full of energy. Meanwhile, however, Charles' condition worsens considerably. This forces Will's hand, as he steals his serum from work and secretly administers it to his father...to immediate and dramatic effect.
As it seems that Charles is finally conquering his disease, this uplifting moment is immediately undercut by Caesar's first notable foray into mischief. Though we feel and experience the emotional high of Charles' recovery, we then have to face the first major foreshadowing that Caesar simply doesn't belong in this kind of environment...evidenced by the Rodman's neighbor and his fearful, defensive attack on the ape.
That's the compelling thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes: despite several moments of triumph and elation, we're never quite given the chance to be lulled into any sense of security.
These types of subtly ominous moments keep cropping up, starting with Caesar mischievously escaping his house to play with their neighbor's bicycle and encountering the anger and fear of other humans, and continuing with an eight-year-old Caesar at the top of a redwood tree, looking down forlornly at Will and his veterinarian girlfriend Caroline's loving relationship. Judging from Caesar's expressions, there's not much jealousy there; only a general feeling of melancholy as Will's relationship highlights the loneliness in Caesar's own life.
Then, of course, we get the surprisingly tense scene with the dog at the national park (though it does stretch our sense of disbelief a bit. We're to believe that after almost a decade of living with Will, Caesar's never had a hostile encounter with a dog or any other kind of pet before?).
This encounter is a bit of a wake-up call, as it causes Caesar to start to question both Will and himself as to who and what he actually is. Is he relegated to just being a pet, albeit smarter and with the self-awareness to have a healthy disdain of his own leash? Is he on the same social level as Will? Is he supposed to be his son? Can he continue to fit in with Will, Caroline, and other humans? Where does he come from? Who were his actual mother and father? And on and on it goes, as we can actually see the wheels spinning in Caesar's mind.
Of course, this is only possible through the tireless work of Andy Serkis, motion-capture actor extraordinaire. Despite some dodgy CGI here and there, the filmmakers pushed the limit and expertly recreated computer-generated apes that are so life-like, that we would immediately forget about the CGI and simply accept them as living, breathing characters. It can't be overstated how much realism the special effects crew and all the motion-capture actors brought to the table to make moments like this possible.
Indeed, it's amazing that such a complex, morally-questionable identity crisis can be so well-defined and articulated from a few motion-captured facial expressions and flashes of sign language.
Finding the Humanity in Caesar:
Going hand-in-hand with the focus on the characters is how masterfully Rise manages to depict the inherent humanity in each and every character, animal and human alike. This, of course, is the gateway to getting the mainstream audience to go along with the admittedly strange concept of a movie about an ape uprising.
For all intents and purposes, Caesar is the main character of this movie. Since most of the viewing audience happens to be humans (or at least, I would hope so), it's vitally important to make us love, understand, and empathize with the apes as if they were human. Obviously, this applies to the standard human characters as well. And to its credit, the movie fully understands this dichotomy and every aspect of it goes a long way towards fulfilling this goal.
Take Charles, for example. While Caesar is in the middle of his existential identity crisis, John Lithgow's character starts to relapse back into the clutches of the insidious disease (again, it's no coincidence that both characters go through more major problems at the same exact time). This directly leads to yet another altercation with their same neighbor.
As Charles' Alzheimer's renders him oblivious to what he's doing, he accidentally crashes his neighbor's car and sends him into a rage. Through the window in his room above, Caesar witnesses the confrontation and leaps to the defense of his family member, but not before flying off the rails in an animalistic fury and making the most public example yet of how wild and dangerous he has the potential to be.
In case any of us (including the character of Will) had forgotten, this incident is a definitive reminder that Caesar is an animal in a human world; a world that he will never belong to. It's no surprise when he's then taken away by animal control and placed in a shelter, but it doesn't make it any less tragic.
Indeed, the tragedy comes from the fact that Caesar is shown to be extraordinarily smart...yet he still can't be expected to understand the varying implications of his actions.
How exactly is he supposed to know that Charles' disease is returning with a vengeance, and that the angry encounter with the neighbor was just a giant misunderstanding, not a malicious attack on Charles? How is he to realize that Will is legally mandated to put him into the animal shelter as a result of the previous incident? How can he understand that his life-long father figure isn't cold-heartedly abandoning him with no explanation and literally signing him away?
And yet...how can he not be frightened and terrified out of his mind when he finds himself suddenly ripped away from the only home he's ever known and placed in such an alien, hostile environment? Will's emotional goodbye and Caesar's pitiful reaction, separated by a wall of glass, really manages to tug at the heartstrings.
But it's not all doom and gloom. These chain of events also signal the beginning of the most intriguing part of the story: the 2nd act which features almost the entire removal of human characters (who, let's be perfectly honest here, aren't even close to being the most fascinating or interesting part of this movie) and thankfully focuses more on the dynamics between Caesar, his fellow primates, and the hierarchy of the animal shelter.
Caesar's continuing distrust of Will, and humanity in general, is exacerbated by the theatrics of the douchey ape handler Dodge Landon, and the ape's identity crisis is further explored as he is initially unable to fit in with the rest of the apes. But as the owner of the primate shelter tells Will at one point, "You'd be surprised how quick they adapt." He has no idea yet, but he couldn't have been more right about that.
Rise of the Apes:
It's truly a notable achievement that this next phase of the movie, the meaty 2nd act that details Caesar's brilliant plan of gaining a following of apes and then escaping the facility, manages to fly against normal Hollywood conventions and decrease the sense of scale and scope and go smaller, staying in one small location and focusing on one main character. It's a character study, pure and simple, and it's extremely effective.
This is evidenced by Caesar's eventual rise through the primate hierarchy of the animal shelter. The entire set of circumstances appears to be unlikely but man, is the payoff totally worth it.
Nothing is quite as exhilarating as watching Caesar at the top of the primate sanctuary, surveying his new environment and piecing together the beginnings of a plan...a plan that will have the entire facility, and the hostile apes living there, eating out of his hand and completely under his control.
From befriending the wise and watchful orangutan Maurice, to seizing a chance opportunity (literally) by grabbing one of Dodge's friends and stealing his pocket knife, to using that knife to ingeniously free himself from his cage, to freeing and earning the goodwill of the giant caged gorilla Buck, to using Buck to help teach a valuable, painful lesson to the former alpha male leader of the group, Rocket, as to who's really in charge now...Caesar's ascension into a convincing, fearsome leader is both awe-inspiring and frightening to watch.
Of course, this wouldn't be complete without Will's final attempt at freeing Caesar and bringing him home by bribing John Landon, owner of the primate facility. However, by this point, Caesar has had his taste of freedom and his plan is too far along to be stopped now. More importantly, he realizes he owes it to these apes to stay and help free them. He takes one look at the leash in Will's hand and all that it symbolizes, he remembers his perceived abandonment and betrayal, and as painful as it is, he turns his back on his father figure until Will has no choice but to leave.
But the other primates notice this too. Amidst deafening chants and cheers of approval, Caesar has finally earned everyone's loyalty and respect by choosing the tougher path over complacency and the status quo. He becomes a hero to the powerless. And it's only the beginning.
After his brilliant ploy of using the troublesome Rocket to distribute cookies to each primate in the animal sanctuary, Maurice questions Caesar of his strategy in a very amusing, yet important, sign language conversation: "Why cookie Rocket?" "A single monkey...is weak. Monkeys together - a force," Caesar patiently explains (does this sound familiar? This exchange is echoed in the trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, with Caesar yelling in perfect English: "Apes. Together. Strong!").
Finally, the last parts of Caesar's growing revolution fall into place as he escapes the primate facility, finds Will's house, retrieves several canisters of Will's new and improved 113 serum, and unleashes the potent gas on his fellow primates. When the next morning dawns, they awaken to find they have a few characteristics they never had before: heightened senses, tell-tale green eyes, and the ability to think, reason, and act accordingly. Unknown to the outside world, the beginnings of Caesar's ape army has just been formed.
2) A Compelling Character Arc.
One of the unequivocal strengths of this movie is that Caesar is given his own character arc that makes just as much sense as any human's. Honestly, it says a lot that an ape is much more developed and 3-dimensional than a lot of human characters in most other movies.
And that doesn't happen by accident, either. I touched on this a little earlier, but as the main character, Caesar is so fleshed out that every little moment on his journey reverberates throughout the story. We understand his noble motivations for desiring freedom at all costs, we sympathize with the unfortunate things he's had to go through, and we root for him because of his uncanny ability to take control of unfavorable and negative circumstances and turn them around to his advantage.
As a result, the littlest moments tend to stick out in a big way and continually add to the growth of the character.
Think of the scene early on where Will allows a young Caesar to take off his leash and discover the wide-open spaces of the redwood forest, and remember how epic and powerful the simple act of climbing a redwood tree for the first time is portrayed to be (which then morphs into an excellent, well-crafted aging montage that shows the ape growing up through the years).
Or how about the heart-wrenching moment where a desperately homesick Caesar, stuck in the cruel animal shelter, recreates a drawing of the window from which he used to watch the world go by in happier days. A little later, we then get the scene where Will and Caroline visit him and clean up some of his Rocket-inflicted wounds, but have to tell him that he still can't go home yet. Enraged and feeling utterly betrayed, Caesar then wipes away the drawing, cutting ties with the comforting life he used to know, and focuses on the task at hand: getting the unfriendly apes onto his side and planning their escape.
These little moments keep on building as we slowly realize that Caesar doesn't quite fit in with humans or apes, definitively proven without a shadow of a doubt when Rocket leads an attack on a naive and unsuspecting Caesar who has never encountered other chimps before. These instances make it that much sweeter when he begins to reason his way into a more advantageous position in the ape sanctuary, or when he starts to convert more and more primates to his side until, before we know it, he's clearly become their de facto leader.
Yet another strength of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is how the tension, the drama, and eventually the action all keep building higher and higher until reaching a breaking point. One such scene occurs when, armed with the 113 serum and the increased mental capacities it brings, Caesar finally stands up to Dodge. After taking a few hits from Dodge's taser, Caesar decides enough is enough. He grabs Dodge's arm, the sound and soundtrack drop out completely, and Caesar yells "NO!", to the utter shock and amazement of the primates. But with this one point-of-no-return moment, Caesar lets all of humanity know exactly how intelligent, capable, and fearsome he and his apes have become.
All of these scenes go a long way towards establishing Caesar's overall arc.
So what exactly is his arc? Well, he goes from a trusting, helpless infant who is utterly dependent on Will and humanity in general, to a powerful, charismatic, independent leader that leads a revolution for freedom and is truly a force to be reckoned with.
It's also pretty incredible how Rise of the Planet of the Apes manages to convey the fact that everything Caesar goes through in the early going is vitally important to his journey. Without being torn away from the only family he's ever known, without the opportunity to yearn for the familiar window in his room at Will's house, without spurning Will once and for all when it became clear he wasn't going home...it's safe to say that he never would've learned to rely on himself and his own abilities. Without that important lesson, he never would've found the strength and courage to earn the respect of his ape peers and eventually come to lead them.
Can you honestly say that this movie doesn't have a stronger character arc that is more fleshed out, complex, and effective than most other films with a human in the lead role? Here's a hint:
3) Action in Service of the Characters.
The best thing that can be said about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it doesn't settle for being a typical, mindless summer blockbuster that's chock-full of action and little of anything else. No, this isn't an action movie by any means. In fact, there are maybe only 3 major action set pieces in the entire film.
So if that's the case, then why exactly is this movie generally praised for its superb use of action? Well, it's simple.
Action was never the top priority to the filmmakers. Developing characters, crafting a finely-tuned story with a smart script, and creating a living, breathing universe on the cusp of a world-shattering revolution are all areas that were given the most attention to. This movie succeeds so well in every other aspect outside of action...but don't mistake that for being some sort of flaw.
When it comes time to finally ramp up on the action in the 3rd act (and that's one thing Rise does so well: it manages to steadily increase the tension, the stakes, and the action as well) and the final action sequence occurs on the Golden Gate Bridge, it's MUCH more enthralling and exciting than it seems to have any right to be.
Again, why is that the case?
It's because we're so invested in these characters that we genuinely care about what happens to them. When a movie somehow accomplishes that tricky feat, the filmmakers have free reign to do anything. At that point, almost any bit of action will do the job effectively. It's to this movie's credit that the action is so well-choreographed, there's a clear and concise sense of geography in each sequence, and every action beat exists to propel the story forward.
As both apes and humans end up coming into conflict with each other, our levels of investment and concern are immediately raised. And there it is: we get instant drama, instant conflict, instant high stakes, and instant meaningful action. It's not the quantity of the action. It's the quality. This is a lesson that too few Hollywood directors understand.
Since Rise of the Planet of the Apes works so hard at getting us invested in these characters, we experience every development throughout the movie right along with the characters themselves. This in turn means that the action isn't there just to give the audience some empty spectacle.
And so we end up torn. In the middle of the action, as the battle is raging, do we root for Caesar and his apes to fight for their freedom and escape safely? Or do we sympathize with Will and the other humans, for obvious reasons?
There's substance here. There's meaning. That's what helps set Rise apart from most other movies. With so many recent complaints of how big-budget blockbusters simply unload on their audiences with expensive amounts of CGI, massive explosions, death, and destruction, how refreshing is it to see a summer blockbuster that knows and understands the actual function of action?
By the time Caesar's ragtag army escapes the animal shelter, breaks into the Gen-Sys lab, invades San Francisco, fights through the blockade of humans on the Golden Gate Bridge, and finally makes it to the redwood forest...it actually feels like something major has been accomplished. And so when Will tracks Caesar down and utters the final line of the movie, "Caesar...is...home", it has actual weight and substance and meaning. It's a fantastic ending, and it's only possible as a result of the successful use of action beforehand.
Sure, there are only about 3 major action sequences. But despite that, each one manages to feel like a total game-changer. Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn't have action just for the sake of action. The action is completely in service of both the characters and the story. It is action as it's supposed to be.
At the risk of sounding unhealthily in love with this movie, there's actually even more strengths of Rise of the Planet of the Apes that I could keep droning on about...but I'll try to be brief.
This is a complex, nuanced movie that contains an emotional core at the center of the film, yet still depicts characters with moral shades of grey. A sure sign of a good movie is how the abundance of emotions that it elicits isn't always the feel-good, Pharrell Williams "Because I'm happy" type of emotion. Smart movies know enough to not pander to and appease their audience by manipulating emotions.
Rise is filled to the brim with tragedy, heartbreak, misunderstandings, helplessness, and isolation...which are also balanced by moments of triumph, brilliant and inspired plans of reaching goals, and a rousing ending scene of Caesar finally gaining what he's so desperately wanted for so long: freedom and liberation, for himself and for his apes.
This film also manages to sneak in a surprising amount of easter eggs and fun nods to the original Planet of the Apes movies, though it's important to note that this is a proper reboot of the franchise...a different continuity and timeline that is wholly separate from the original.
Still, that didn't prevent the filmmakers from a plethora of references to the original five film franchise. The name of Andy Serkis' character, Caesar, is taken from a similar character depicted in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes. Similarly, the name of the douchey ape handler Dodge Landon is a combination of the names of the two other astronauts that accompanied Charlton Heston's character Taylor in the original. And of course, Caesar's mother Bright Eyes was a nickname given to Taylor by an ape.
The most recognizable easter egg would probably be Dodge Landon recreating the iconic line from the original: "Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!" But what people may not realize is that Caesar's next (and very first spoken word) line of "NO!" is actually straight from the canon of the original franchise, where it's stated that the first word spoken to humans by an ape was this very same line.
But some references end up moving past the realm of fun, inconsequential easter eggs, and actually connect with the larger mythology of this franchise. Early in the movie, Caesar is briefly shown to be playing with a model replica of the Statue of Liberty, and this later ties into the quick newsreel footage of the Icarus, a manned spaceship that has apparently left on a mission to mars...which is then eventually revealed to have been lost in space somehow.
And of course, the Rodman's recurring next-door neighbor happens to be an airline pilot. He was sneezed on by one of Will's infected associates (who died of the disease), and the extra scene during the credits depicts the spread of the virus as it rages throughout the world, setting the stage for the events of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
After all this talk about the things Rise did right, however, I'd be remiss not to call attention to some of the flaws of the film. And the biggest one would perhaps be the somewhat dull and lifeless human characters that unfortunately drag the story down a bit with slightly wooden acting (apart from the brilliant John Lithgow, of course) and mountains of expository dialogue under the guise of Will's scientific voice recordings.
But it's an easily-forgivable offense, as not many people come to these movies for the humans. It's purely about the apes, and Rise isn't really trying to fool anybody in that regard.
Thanks to a main protagonist that oozes charisma and sets off on a well-rounded and fully-developed character arc, a well-written and intelligent script that doesn't mince words, a large focus on a character-centric story, effective action in service of the characters and the plot, and perhaps most importantly, a sense of pathos that actively engages its audience, Rise of the Planet of the Apes easily breathed new life into an old franchise and perfectly set the stage for a post-apocalyptic sequel that looks like it surpasses Rise in every possible way...which is really saying something.
But that's enough from me: all this was just a very long-winded way of stating what should be obvious by now: that Rise of the Planet of the Apes worked on almost every fundamental level, and I for one couldn't be more excited to continue Caesar's adventure with Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.
Once again, thanks for reading! Agree with my reasoning, or completely disagree? Sound off in the comments below! And please take note: For those who've already seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, please do not spoil any details of the sequel as a courtesy to our fellow users (and me). Spoilery comments will be deleted on sight!
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