Rise of the Planet of the Apes (RotPotA → RPA for short, because it's such a mouthful) is one of those movies that most everyone saw pass through theaters with a sigh of disinterest. The premise of intelligent monkeys taking over the world sounds, at the heart of it, inherently stupid. The complete failure of previous Planet of the Apes movies to impress contributes to this feeling. I just haven't seen on any medium a convincing story that has an animal defeat the modern man. Dinosaurs don't count.
On the flip side, I think everyone can accept that ants will take over the world soon enough (goddamn ants...). Also, something tells me that the dolphins are plotting something. Always smiling... Scheming bastards. But I digress.
Long story short, I went into RPA with very low expectations. All I knew was that it had pretty good reviews and that some segment of the internet was clamoring for Andy Serkis (the actor who plays the main monkey and who, previously, played Gollum from Lord of the Rings) to get an Oscar for his role portraying an ape. Then a friend recommended it highly. I sighed, shelved my short story idea of an ant + dolphin takeover of the world, and went to go watch it.
Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the near total subversion of my expectations. With a name like Rise of the Planet of the Apes and trailers full of monkey armies traipsing across San Francisco, I expected the movie to be broad and impersonal. I expected stereotypical evil scientists experimenting on hapless monkeys to the point where the monkeys take advantage of human dismissal of apes as a threat to break free and take over the world. While some of that was true, for the most part I got a story that, instead of describing a general coup of the world's power, provided an emotional and near heartbreaking journey of one intelligent ape from baby chimp to full grown adult.
Spoilers this point onward.
It is absolutely remarkable how lifelike Caesar appears and acts. His movements are a believable mixture of simian and human. He manages to convey an immensely wide range of emotion, and you understand precisely what he is thinking and doing even when no speech is involved. Although I question the sanity of anybody calling an intelligent ape “Caesar” (may as well call him Genghis if we're really trying to give him ideas), Caesar's childhood with James Franco and his girlfriend is incredibly touching, almost entirely on the power of Caesar as a character. For being composed almost entirely out of CGI, Caesar manages to create an intense bond of empathy between the audience and himself. We feel his love for his surrogate parents, we can sense his growing disillusion with being treated as a pet, and we feel his rage when his family is attacked. The slow burn of that disillusion with humanity and growing bond with his fellow apes is surprisingly intense to watch.
Not pictured: sanity
But then, on the flip side, once Caesar decides to oppose the humans and break free from the zoo/lab (or whatever that place was supposed to be), I lost interest in the entire rest of the movie except in those few moments where Caesar and James Franco interact. I already knew what was going to happen; the very title gives it away. The only question is how it would happen, and I just knew that the answer was going to disappoint me. And I was right.
Who in their right freaking mind decides to attack an army of monkeys, apes, orangutans, and gorillas on horseback with police batons? On a foggy bridge filled with hundreds of obstacles in the form of abandoned cars and trucks? Hasn't anyone heard of tranquilizer guns? When they turn from that positively brilliant strategic decision (*sarcasm*) to trying to gun all the apes down, it becomes really hard to empathize with the humans considering how idiotic they are acting. Guiding a helicopter close enough to the bridge for monkeys to jump on it? Nice one, guys. Fantastic thinking.
This brings me to another criticism I had of the movie. Aside from the family of James Franco (and even Franco is cast as having a murky sort of moral position), every single human character is either totally unaware what is going on (screaming pedestrians), dumb as hell (that one zookeeper), or sadistic/evil (the moneygrubbers and the other zookeeper). Is this movie designed to make us want an ape takeover of the world? Every step of the way we are guided to empathize with Caesar and the plight of the monkeys, but it is worth noting that an equal attempt is not made for the humans. Consequently, I walked away from this feeling like the message was that humanity is fated to be selfish, opportunistic, and daft.
But despite my nitpicking, I really did enjoy RPA and it is the best movie of this type that I've ever seen (intelligent ape takeovers). Sure, I make light of this sub-genre, but that doesn't mean that it isn't without reward. I now consider myself one of those who think that Andy Serkis (the actor behind Caesar) should get a Best Actor Oscar nod for this, if not the Oscar itself. The man has mastered a new technology (CGI representation on the screen) that you never see anywhere else, and that deserves to be recognized.
So if you want a surprisingly deep character study of a CGI ape and you consider yourself open to new ideas on a science fiction basis, then this movie is truly awesome. Sadly, I still think I find myself guffawing over the premise, but that didn't prevent me from appreciating that this movie is actually quite good. Definitely worth seeing.