Rise of Planet of the Apes Is a Low-Key Miracle

Rise of Planet of the Apes Is a Low-Key Miracle

Rise of the Planet of the Apes achieves the unthinkable. It’s a prequel film to an iconic classic that approaches the material in a fresh, interesting way, stands on its own, and doesn’t tarnish the legacy or integrity of its predecessors. On paper, it shouldn’t work. Throughout movie history, it usually doesn’t. But in 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, did all that, and we’re still talking about its repercussions today.

In a few weeks, Fox will release Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes, a new film set in the legendary franchise that began in 1968 with Planet of the Apes. That mega-hit spawned four sequels and a remake, a feat unto itself. Then Rise picked up the baton and was miraculously so good, it spawned its own trilogy which is now getting a sequel. So, to prep for the new movie, we’re looking back at those three films, starting with Rise.

The idea behind Rise, and eventually its follow-ups, is simple. How specifically did Earth go from a planet ruled by humans to a planet ruled by apes? And Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes that story to its day-one, minute-one, origins, showing us the doctor (Will Rodman, played by James Franco) who created the medicine that simultaneously makes apes incredibly smart, but is deadly to humans. We also meet the first ape born with the effects of that medicine, Caesar, performed by Andy Serkis.

Caesar and Will

One of the many reasons this film is so incredible, especially on a rewatch, is how much it packs into its modest 105-minute run time. We learn Dr. Rodman created this medicine to help his ailing father (John Lithgow). We see how Caesar became so comfortable with humans, when and why that changed, and finally how he grew from a confused fish out of water into an inspirational, aspirational leader. It’s also revealed that it was human greed more than anything that led to our demise.

All of which is captured with energy and heart by director Rupert Wyatt. We watch as Caesar’s story unfolds via dynamic, awe-inspiring camera moves and angles. The narrative flies by with edits and montages that keep the film propulsive and impactful. And, of course, Andy Serkis’ performance capture work as Caesar is nothing short of remarkable. By the time he takes full control of the character a third of the way into the movie, anytime there’s a human on screen, you want it to end just so you can spend more time with Caesar.

But that doesn’t take away from how character and plot work hand in hand. We get so wrapped up in Rodman’s care of his father, his adoration for Caesar, and then Caesar’s incarceration and rebellion, we almost forget the inevitability of what’s to come. Eventually, somehow, the world has to be taken over by apes. And so Wyatt delicately peppers that in over the course of the second act, culminating in the action-packed, sprawling yet sad third act where it all comes to a head.

Image: Fox

Plus, even with so much happening in the movie, its totality barely scratches the surface of “Planet of the Apes” as a concept. By the time Caesar and his apes have escaped into the woods, they do so without the knowledge that a killer virus is slowly spreading across the world. In fact, many movie fans may not even realize that’s happening either because it’s relegated to a mid-credit scene and graphics viewed during the credits. Which, to this day, I find an odd choice. Certainly, the filmmakers didn’t want the fall of humanity to overshadow the incredible character work with Caesar and Rodman. But the way human extinction is shoehorned in as some lines during the credits can be viewed as either a complete afterthought or a very pointed commentary on the importance of humans in this story. What it also does, though, is give the audience just enough breadcrumbs that, if this was the only film that got made, you can roughly piece together how this winds up with Charlton Heston on a beach with the Statue of Liberty.

Which, in the end, is another triumph of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It tells a complete, emotional, exciting story with a definitive ending. Even though there were centuries of stories left untold, there was no true need to continue. This could have been it. Luckily though, it wasn’t, and we got to see more of that story unfold in subsequent sequels that we’ll dive into in the coming weeks leading to Kingdom.

As for Rise of the Planet of the Apes though, rewatching it was a complete delight. It’s a beautiful movie that, if we recall correctly, was followed by even better movies. It also didn’t hurt that Rise was the first ever film set I visited as a journalist, so there was a bit of nostalgia there too.

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