When lockdown began in March 2020, I felt aimless. I was worried, having no idea of what was to come and how long it would last. Like most people, I turned to watching movies and shows I’d missed over the years, and catching up with more recent releases as well. But as people rented and watched CONTAGION to think about a movie that handled the story of a pandemic, my mind went immediately to the final scene of RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, a movie that doesn’t necessarily try to connect itself with the ’68 one starring Charlton Heston, but acts as a prequel to it. 10 years later, it takes on a different meaning, but we’ll get back to this later.
RISE released at a time when there were reboots and remakes began to become more mainstream than usual. Within a few years, we had the live-action remake of ALICE IN WONDERLAND, CLASH OF THE TITANS, the announcement for THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN (and release not long after), as well as CONAN THE BARBARIAN in the same year as RISE. The interesting thing about RISE’s release, however, is this was the second shot at a reboot of the franchise. The first one was 10 years prior, in 2001. Directed by Tim Burton and starring Mark Wahlberg, that movie had some great makeup work and effects, but ended up disappointing many people in terms of a story and overall direction, hence the idea of another reboot wasn’t met with much hype at first.
Speaking only from personal experience, none of my friends were showing much interest in the movie’s release at first. The summer was lined up with movies like HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS PART 2, CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER, TRANSFORMERS: DARK OF THE MOON etc. that were garnering far more interest from them, so RISE seemed like an afterthought. At first. However, after the film’s release, that quickly changed. In a summer of huge action movies, here was one that was a lot more thoughtful than it was advertised as.
At Gen-Sys, chemist Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on ALZ-112, a drug that not only makes apes smarter, but could be the cure to Alzheimer’s the world has been looking for. However, due to a freak accident at the lab, the drug is put on hold. Turns out that Bright Eyes, the chimp being experimented on, gave birth to a baby. Rodman takes it in, whose father (John Lithgow) names him “Caesar” (Andy Serkis). Using the drug on his own father, suffering from Alzheimer’s, Will sees it take effect wonderfully. However, seeing the mistreatment apes get at the hands of humans, first in the neighborhood and then when he’s taken to a primate shelter run by John and Dodge Landon (Brian Cox and Tom Felton), Caesar eventually leads the apes to rebel against humanity and overrun San Francisco.
Viewers of the film may notice that a lot of details were left out of that synopsis above, in particular details about the drug itself. As that makes up another part of the story, seeing it play out in the movie felt eerie now. As 112 failed, they begin work on ALZ-113, that may or may not work, and hopefully will be stronger than the 112, which eventually wears off and brings back the disease even worse, as it does with Will’s father. However, while the 113 enhances apes’ skills, the side effects are more fatal for human beings, and eventually results in the evolution of the Simian Flu, the virus which wipes out almost the entire human race, and eventually, leads into the ’68 movie with Charlton Heston.
Living in pandemic times, seeing scenes where the first case interacts with someone else, and then we see it spread across the globe in the end, is horrifying and unsettling to behold, and it can’t help but remind the viewer of the anxiety everyone felt in mid-March of 2020. While very different circumstances, the movie’s handling of humanity’s hubris and not looking at the warning signs of things to come–even as the red light flashes over everything–is on full display here. As Gen-Sys’ boss, David Jacobs (David Oyelowo), a man who starts with having more concrete thoughts about what steps to take, eventually decides to rush a drug out that isn’t fully ready and proven to be harmful, and in many ways, escalates the trouble to come.
But what makes RISE really great aren’t its state-of-the-art motion capture effects, but when it comes to the apes, the commentary is sound in how the movie shows the animals have more of a soul than the humans do, understanding the inhumane acts and acting against those who oppress and torture them. That’s the real heart and soul of the movie. In many ways, their ‘humanity’ helps bring out the best in some of those human characters, like Will and Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto), and help them understand the plight the apes are going through at the hands of people, be it at the Gen-Sys labs, the shelter or Will’s neighborhood. The commentary can be applied to any animal, but the movie handles it wonderfully. Almost heartbreakingly so.
As Caesar eventually learns to speak, while it’s remarkable in the world of the movie, he’s already spoken volumes in the movie through his expressions and intellect, and that visual storytelling is wonderful. Several scenes, like one where he sees Will’s father regressing again and twists his fork around so he can eat breakfast, are powerful. They’re simple, but the work gone into making them happen is an achievement. Or take, for example, the scene where Caesar gives up on Will and Caroline ever taking care of him again, and he shuts the gate on them at the shelter. He’s with the apes there now.
When they do use dialogue with him, it’s in two major scenes. Both the movie’s highlights. One where he first stands up to a human being, i.e., Dodge, the brutal animal controller. The resounding “NO!” that comes out of Caesar when told by the man to let go of him is followed by a pin drop silence. It’s a hell of a moment. The final line in the movie, which is the title of this article, is beautifully delivered as well. This movie knew exactly where to place its emotional beats.
From a movie standpoint, it’s great. Sure, the next two in this trilogy are improvements, but this is a brilliantly directed movie, with stellar performances–Serkis’ nomination-worthy work is incredible–and visual effects, and the final act on the bridge with the apes overrunning the city is spectacular. Can some of the commentary I brought up earlier get a bit too on-the-nose sometimes? Sure. Take Koba (Toby Kebbell) for instance. He’s a chimp experimented on so much over the years that it’s the only life he’s known, to the point that no human is a good human in his eyes. Seeing scenes where Gen-Sys workers use him as a subject without mercy give away what you’ll see later in the movie, like Jacobs getting killed. Nevertheless, 10 years on, I still enjoy this movie, and think it holds up just as much as it did before…even current world conditions withstanding.