Sometimes figuring out why one thing worked and another didn’t is as simple as looking at the difference in how they started.
The 2001 Planet of the Apes was born in the inorganic desperation of a studio trying to finally recoup development costs. The 2011 Rise of the Planet of the Apes began with writer Rick Jaffa reading about pet chimps proving poor fits in human homes and had the idea that this might be the perfect way to reboot the Apes series. Great films have been born of development hell and disasters born of passion, but it’s hard not to see the Caesar trilogy as one born of genuine inspiration that would carry through for three films.
Yes this week we’re looking at a vastly different saga from last time. If the 2001 reboot was soulless and mediocre, the 2011 reboot is a perfect answer to it. The first film was afraid to be the full Apes film the second wholeheartedly embraced. And it does so despite basically having no tie to the first set. Aside from an ape protagonist with enhanced intelligence, the first film only becomes an ape vs human film in the finale and even then really only for a few minutes. But this? This is a great ape film.
Why? Like with the last at bat I want to fully examine what made the film what it is. So let’s begin by examining the aftermath of the 2001 film. Because while it tarnished the brand, I think it was a tiny bit more successful than people think. It made money but specifically it made enough money to show people were interested. In the decade between films, the original films continued their long successful tradition of tv screenings. They stayed in the consciousness. Audiences wanted more. Just more like the original.
So I single out the film’s origin because that was the right approach. Jaffa started from examining a real social phenomenon that had barbs. With his partner, Amanda Silver, they took time to build a character driven narrative from the perspective of the central ape. There was a nice and lengthy development here as the film emerged 5 years later, but that work was all on this project with writers Mark Bomback and Scott Frank rewriting the project.
The film itself comes from director Rupert Wyatt, whose credits after are the poorly received The Gambler and the modestly received Captive State which shares this film’s social sci-fi dna. I bring this up now for a sharp contrast from the 2001 film. This wasn’t a film by “major” creators but rather solid craftsmen. The film looks decent but it’s not particularly visually distinct. With a 93 million budget, it isn’t an indie but it also isn’t as over the top as other films. This is really a film dependent on script, effects, and cast and it crushes most of those.
The story is simple. A chimpanzee is experimented on. She goes mad and it turns out she was protecting her infant son. Said baby inherited advanced intelligence through the drug tests. He is adopted by the doctor running the experiment and named Caesar. Caesar grows up and becomes almost human but when he attacks a neighbor defending his family, he is sent to a sanctuary where he is abused. Eventually a full fledged rebellion inevitably occurs. At the same time a more powerful version of the drug has been created, one that enhances ape intelligence but in viral form is lethal to humans. The neighbor is exposed to the viral form and in a gut churning final shot we see his job: airline pilot. The end of humanity is on.
I give a full plot synopsis here when I hadn’t before because I want to lay out the choices made on this film. Like I said, on a craft level I think this is solid but unspectacular. It’s well edited and well shot by the late Andrew Lesnie. It’s only 105 minutes, but the plot is shockingly dense with no air at all. But it’s wall to wall great choices.
The big one to get out of the way is how this approaches the franchise. It’s not afraid of it even as the plot means there can’t be much to resemble it. But yeah, there’s a lot of callbacks. The missing spacecraft happens in the background, setting up a potential remake. There’s a Statue of Liberty joke. Names like Bright Eyes and Cornelia honor the past. And most importantly Caesar, our hero, is out of Conquest in many ways.
But that’s not what gives this film its stripes. This is a movie that understands that the Planet of the Apes saga means something. Not safe cute haha monkeys vs people. Ideas. And one specifically: Mankind will destroy itself.
The film examines the dangers of mankind tampering with nature above all others. Caesar is born when men inject his mom with a drug. He is symbolically born of the evil of man playing god. What I find especially fascinating is he’s not the product of dark research. He’s a creation of trying to create a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. That’s the noblest cause and it still ends poorly because the men making the drug handle it poorly. It’s an interesting commentary.
But there’s another way he’s the product of the worst of man. Caesar wouldn’t make his fellow apes smarter if he didn’t have to strike back against the abuse they face at the sanctuary. This is a passionate attack on animal abuse and it’s darkly effective. The apes are treated as less than men and men are laid low for it.
Once more the core allegory of the franchise takes hold. The system flips. But it’s potent that in this film all the apes want is freedom. Not to rule but to live unoppressed. It’s a nice idea the film takes very seriously. The movie does of course build to an action sequence but it’s one where man is at fault and man is the aggressor. The apes fight back as they just try to get home.
Let’s get back to that sequel tag too. If the 2001 crashed and burned in its tag, this one couldn’t be blunter about what it promises. The virus spreads rapidly and it’s spreading in the very places viruses do spread. The tag tells viewers that yes, humanity is about to be destroyed and that simple answer of what’s to come is enough to send people out eager to see more.
It’s hard not to talk about this franchise using a virus as the downfall of humanity in 2021 without acknowledging it’s an all too plausible outcome. That we have several highly effective vaccines against a deadly plague and it is only spreading because of a dedicated anti-vaccine movement is astonishing and makes this franchise feel jarring. We know that this would wipe us out.
But let me address a giant plot hole in this movie that can’t be ignored. A plague that makes apes smarter but eliminates people? That’s not going to happen and basic evolutionary science says it. I’m sure it could be explained with some obscure genetic information but it’s a bit ridiculous. We are just naked apes.
That’s not the only flaw though. We have to sigh and talk about the big problem these films always have. The humans aren’t nearly as interesting as the apes. It’s the problem you have with most kaiju films that aren’t Cloverfield (put a pin in this) or Gojira. The humans are there to facilitate the plot.
And look, there are good performances here. John Lithgow as a man broken by Alzheimer’s is going to be moving. Brian Cox is brilliant at being a cold ass. And god I love Tom Felton in monster mode. He’s a fun bad guy.
But we’ve got to ask why the hell we chose James Franco as a star. He didn’t enjoy it and took jobs like this to fund weird indie work. He’s not bad here but he adds nothing. He’s functional. Oh and he’s a complete monster.
But of course he’s not the main character. Caesar is and he’s a truly revolutionary creation. Gollum and Jar Jar Binks were close but they were unnatural and could look weird. Caesar looks very close to a real ape. He’s not wholly perfect, especially in the final battle, but he’s one of the most photorealistic cgi creations ever and over the next two films he will become impossibly real.
And much of what makes him real is Andy Serkis who did the motion capture work. Serkis is a genius actor as his all too fleeting live action work shows. When you see the side by side footage of his work next to the final cgi, you can’t miss how much of him shines through this. He’s not just a model. This is a profound performance aided by Serkis’ wonderful ape like face. Watch his eyes then watch Black Panther and see they basically leave those untouched. He only gets to say a few words here but he makes them count.
Of course it’s more than the effects and the performance. The movie is wholly from Caesar’s perspective. We are following him basically the whole time. When we cut away it’s to the villains or to developments that lead to his story furthering. Caesar is the film. And the weakness of the humans for once doesn’t matter. It’s not their story.
And it’s wild how great a hero Caesar is. As I said, he only speaks a few words and he signs a bit more but he’s a fleshed out character just in his actions. It’s weird to say it’s interesting to watch an ape think but he’s a very gripping character to watch plan and scheme. Caesar sees what man has to offer and he hates it. We understand why he acts as he does because his character is clear.
But of course it can’t be ignored that his arc will go on. I think this is an excellent film but without the next two films it’s a very nice riff on the classic themes but still fundamentally a modest film. The movie is a promise that we will eventually see the full arc of the fall of humanity and the establishment of the Planet of the Apes. That’s not something you can show in one film easily. And I feel like tracking his saga.
Next week, we are looking at the complicated, flawed, fascinating Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.