Anyone who has ever gone to the movies knows how small a ticket is. It makes sense – why print up a full-sized piece of paper for something that is relatively insignificant? – but it often means that the name of the movie is cut off or abbreviated. In the case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the ticket stub read simply “Rise of Planet Ape“, which immediately brought to mind a cheesy 50s-era sci-fi B-movie along the lines of It Came from Beneath the Sea or This Island Earth. Rise of the Planet of the Apes could have been one of those movies. In fact, it could have been a lot of things. The trailers were surprisingly vague on what kind of movie to expect. Would it be a deadly-serious sci-fi parable with deep messages to impart to humankind? I hoped not, as that movie would probably have been crushed under its own weight. Would it be a straight-up action-thriller, with nothing but ape-on-human action and lots of “jump” moments, wherein apes would jump right at the camera, roaring as loud as possible? That movie would have been a disappointment as well. It would have been a big, dumb blockbuster, made only to make a quick buck by entertaining the lowest-common-denominator. Honestly, I wouldn’t have been surprised to see any of those. After all, take a look at the first trailer:
The apparent violent action suggests one type of movie, but the heavy-handed dialogue suggests another. And in the midst of all of this, I forgot one very important aspect, perhaps the most vital thing that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is: It’s a prequel. And not only is it one of the best prequels in film history, it’s the best film I’ve seen all year.
The point of a prequel is to give new, surprising information that you never would have known just from watching the original, without contradicting the original in any way. Rise of the Planet of the Apes completely succeeds in that regard. There are multiple reminders that the original film, 1968’s Planet of the Apes, is the next stage of this story. Plenty of prequels, especially those made years after the fact, seem to completely forget that they are inevitably leading up to the events of the original film. George Lucas’s Star Wars prequels fall victim to this multiple times. On the contrary, RotPotA was clearly written with the original in mind. This strengthens the story for those who have seen the original, but I can see how the clues could be misleading for people who have no knowledge of it. However, I don’t think that people can complain about confusion without having seen the original. It’s like complaining that the last Lord of the Rings film makes no sense when you haven’t seen the first two. It isn’t the film’s job to waste time making sure that every single person in the audience is 100% clear on every single detail of the narrative. As a matter of fact, at one point in the film, someone in the theater leaned to the person next to them and whispered, “Wait, so, did he die?” Of course, to anyone putting even an ounce of brainpower towards the film that they had payed to see, what had happened should have been obvious. The film doesn’t need to have the main character fall to his knees and scream to the heavens as the camera cranes away from him. A film can handle the death of a character tastefully, and taking that in a broader sense, it can handle its themes subtly. That’s a lesson that I wish more directors would learn.
That’s indicative what really makes this a fantastic film. It’s hard to pinpoint what the word “smart” means when used in the context of a film review, but RotPotA makes that perfectly clear. A smart film treats its audience as if they are smart. They don’t make everything obvious, they don’t spell everything out. In every way, the film fits this definition. The character arcs are not only present, but realistic. And all of the main characters* – yes, even the apes – have arcs, which is more than can be said about almost every major studio film this year, or even in years past. James Franco gives a great performance. It isn’t showy, he isn’t reaching for some brilliant acting peak. he just acts like a real person, and it comes across very, very well. Brian Cox and John Lithgow do fantastic work, even though they don’t get a lot of screen-time. Tom Felton not only does a decent American accent, but he manages to do something new with a character that is essentially just another version of Malfoy from the Potter film.
I suppose now is the time to talk about Andy Serkis. Most of you know him as Gollum from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. He did the motion-capture performance as well as the voice. He was also the motion-capture actor for the titular ape in Jackson’s King Kong, strangely foreshadowing his role in this movie six years later. Now, when Avatar came out in 2009, a small group of fans started to rally for Zoe Saldana to be nominated for an Academy Award for her performance, even though it was entirely in a motion-capture suit. At the time, I was against the idea, because I didn’t believe that a complete performance could come through past the motion-capture suit. In fact, looking at some of the behind-the-scenes features, it seems that not all of it did. Her performance as seen in set videos was actually better than what was in the final product. But if Andy Serkis doesn’t get a nomination for his performance, there is no justice in the universe. Using only his facial expressions, Serkis crafts an entire, fleshed-out character, complete with complex emotions and a real arc, and he never says a word. I’ve never seen anything like it before. Too many actors are reliant on dialogue to get their performance across, and they forget to inhabit their characters totally. Serkis clearly has no difficulty with that, even though the character isn’t even human! There was absolutely no precedent for this role, no other movie that he could watch to study mannerisms. He could watch videos of apes, but none of them are hyper-intelligent. It brings to mind the story that Carrie Fisher tells about filming the Alderaan destruction scene in Star Wars. She wasn’t sure how to play the scene because, as she said, “There isn’t an acting exercise for ‘Your planet just blew up.'” Serkis gives one of the best performances in years, and given the circumstances of that performance, that’s saying something.
Serkis is the real standout feature of the picture, but it isn’t the only great thing about it. The special effects (ironically, from the same people who did Avatar‘s) are phenomenal, and WETA Digital is a shoo-in for the Oscar. But CG does not a movie make, and the story here is really well put-together. It’s evident that the screenwriters put a lot of consideration into every aspect of the script, it’s clear that they really tried, which is more than can be said for most every other big movie this summer. I doubt that Transformers 3 even had a second draft, and it’s one of the highest-grossing movies of all time. RotPotA is a carefully-constructed masterpiece, with nary a plot hole in sight, and it will probably make back its budget and not do any better. It’s a real shame that people would rather watch explosions for two hours than actually spend time with a movie that has something to say, that has a reason for being made that isn’t just cash. This is the best movie of the summer, probably the best movie of the year, and most people won’t even remember it by the time it comes out on DVD. I desperately hope that this modern sci-fi classic doesn’t fade into slums of film history. I hope that people will remember it for the great film that it truly was. And most of all, I hope that you go see it as soon as possible. You won’t regret it.
*Admittedly, Freida Pinto’s character doesn’t get much to do, but at least she’s an actual character. In other hands, she would have turned into a caricature, a Megan Fox-type, whose only job would be to stand around and stare at the amazing things happening around her, mouth agape. She actually turns in a great performance.
P.S. Gah! I can’t believe I spent 1500 words on this review without even mentioning the imagery! Director Rupert Wyatt crafts some absolutely stunning images, which will stay with me for a long time to come. I mean, I never thought I’d be the one to praise Armond White for his correctness, but when he compared the climax of this film to The Battle of Algiers, he hit the nail on the head. The emotion, the raw power, the amount of story conveyed in some of these shots is breathtaking. And remember, a big chunk of this film has no dialogue, buy Wyatt is so gifted as a director that he gets the message across without having to spell it out for us. I can’t wait to see what he’s doing next, because I’ll be first in line.