I’ve always wondered if M. Night Shyamalan was traumatized by the original Planet of the Apes as a kid, leading him to believe that every movie had to have an incredible twist at the end. I do still remember the chill I felt, watching as the Statue of Liberty is revealed and realizing Charlton Heston had returned to Earth. The movie had added resonance with its theme of racial conflict and prejudice since it was released on April 3, 1968. Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis the next day. But in spite of the excellent writing and iconic imagery, the movie had a major weakness – the apes. While it won an honorary Oscar for makeup achievement, it was still Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans beneath the latex, wigs and greasepaint. The original spawned a quartet of sequels to fill in the backstory, but you always knew it was human actors in masks. Even in the Mark Walberg/Tim Burton remake, you never forgot it was Michael Clarke Duncan playing the gorilla commander.
But that was before motion capture technology was perfected. It was also before Andy Serkis.
Serkis started as a regular actor on television and in films in his native England. Then he made an indelible mark embodying Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He captured the corrupted soul and the desiccated body. While the outward form was CGI, the animation used Serkis’ facial expressions and body movements as a physical platform. And of course, it was Serkis’ voice filling out the characterization. In a sense, the CGI was simply the makeup he wore. Serkis did double duty in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, playing both the ship’s cook Lumpy as well as Kong. The movie had its weaknesses. Why Jackson put a pas de duex with Kong and Naomi Watts on a frozen Central Park lake in the middle of the destruction of New York City, I’ll never understand. Still, Kong came across as an ape rather than a 1930’s claymation monster or a 1970’s guy in a monkey suit.
In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers once again went to the backstory of how the Earth changed, but rather than remake the earlier sequels, they did a fully original take on the tale. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a researcher looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s. He has a personal stake in it, since his father Charles (John Lithgow) is suffering from the disease. Rodman’s experimental virus-based gene therapy leads to an unexpected side-effect when tested on chimpanzees, especially the female Bright Eyes. It increases intelligence exponentially. But on the day Rodman is presenting his findings to the board of the pharmaceutical company where he works, Bright Eyes goes ballistic. She attacks Robert (Tyler Labine), the lab’s ape handler, and rampages through the building before being shot on the boardroom table. The head of the lab, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) orders Rodman’s project shut down and the other test apes euthanized. It’s only when Rodman and Robert are cleaning out the chimp’s cage that they discover the reason for her attack. She thought they were threatening her newborn baby. Rodman can’t bring himself to kill the baby and instead brings it home. Charles christens the baby Caesar. Rodman soon realizes Caesar’s inherited his mother’s intelligence.
The story jumps forward to show Caesar as both an adolescent and an adult chimp. Along the way Rodman falls in love with Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto), a primate vet. “I love apes,” she tells Rodman, then confesses, “and I fear them.” (Demonstrating more sense than the other characters in the movie.) Their idyllic world is shattered when Caesar, while trying to protect Charles, attacks Rodman’s neighbor. A court orders Caesar confined to a primate center run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son Dodge (Tom Felton).
The screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, do play fast and loose with scientific protocols, especially at one point in the movie. It’s necessary for the story, but it would cause any competent researcher to protest, or maybe rip their eyes out. On the plus side, the movie is filled with references to the original Planet. Then near the climax, they take one of the classic lines from Planet and turn it on its head.
While the human actors are competent, and Tom Felton puts his days as Harry Potter’s nemesis Draco Malfoy far behind him, they are completely upstaged by the apes. Your disbelief is suspended, and you accept them as real. Outstanding are Karin Konoval as Maurice the Orangutan (the name is a tribute to Maurice Evans whose character in the original was an orangutan), Chris Gordon as the gorilla Koba, and Terry Notary as the chimps Bright Eyes and Rocket. The star, though, is Serkis. You read the intelligence in Caesar’s eyes and his growing resentment and radicalization. The CGI is just the makeup; the performance beneath is Oscar-caliber.
Director Rupert Wyatt only had three credits, one of them a short, before being put in charge of this 90 million dollar production. He’s crafted an original, thrilling movie where all the money shows up on the screen. Forget about the sequels from the ‘70’s (and especially the misbegotten TV series) as well as Tim Burton’s remake. This movie is a worthy successor for the original Planet of the Apes, and if anything it surpasses its source.