The Planet of the Apes franchise has always been a tragedy. Deep at its core is man’s inability to exist on this planet peacefully. Whether by our own hand or not, humanity is destined to eradicate itself. Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, wisely places the story in a modern setting so we see the origins of that inevitable fate.
If you have seen the original film, you already know the endgame, but witnessing the end of humankind by our own downfall places the apes as the focal point of the narrative. And, boy do we have a protagonist to follow; Caesar is a fascinating character through and through. Andy Serkis’ motion capture performance is something to behold, and if the character of Caesar didn’t work, then this movie wouldn’t either.
His performance takes center stage during the middle section of the film, which, for all intents and purposes, is a prison drama. Caesar is abandoned at a primate animal shelter by his owner James Franco and must find a way to integrate himself into a society that has preexisting leaders and rituals.
The first act of the film works perfectly well by its own standards, but the boldness of the second act is what begins to hint that this reimagining of the Apes world is headed for bold and challenging new directions. The climactic moment during this sequence features the first time that Caesar speaks. I recall sitting in the theater six years ago and getting a chill up my back for the way that Wyatt pauses for about five seconds after Caesar says the word, “No.” The moment transgresses something within our model of society and Wyatt leaves enough time for the audience to register the implications of what just transpired. It is a moment, that even in rewatching, still rattles me.
There are countless moments like this and their effectiveness hinges upon the mentality that we are existing in a contemporary world. The constraints and the constricts of the world that are created in Rise are adhered to by its own logic. Yes, the science of the film is silly, but an audience that believes in a world where apes can ride on horseback and speak should be able to believe in some sloppy pseudo-science.
This story of the falling of humans and the rising of apes moves at a pace that is so goddamn fast that it is hard to keep up with its momentum sometimes. Wyatt’s film, working from a script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, never takes its foot off the gas. The story is constantly in motion, and more impressively, the film is always moving towards an emotional momentum that few blockbusters operate on. The ending isn’t a triumph because even as the apes win, that means that humanity as we know it is on the edge of extinction.
This might be a story that is contained within a larger whole, but it works effectively as a standalone film. This trilogy so far is very good at balancing the act of carrying a continuing a story and concluding each individual story. Much of that sense of conclusion comes from the sense of impending doom and tragedy. There is a dense sadness to Rise that is often overlooked because of the propulsive excitement. But, the final shot of Caesar overlooking the destruction of San Francisco isn’t one of celebration, it is both closing a page on the past and opening the story to a more somber future.