RECAP: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011): Rupert Wyatt

How did a planet of lightly haired, tool using apes transform into a planet of thickly haired, long-limbed apes that pester lost astronaut Charlton Heston? That question was unanswered until this 2011 film.

The trilogy you didn’t know you needed is about to start. Who’s ready for some ape action?

ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: From tiny ape to genius, Caesar, son of a lab experiment, becomes the smartest ape in San Francisco and leads his fellow kind to freedom. 

Hero (5/10)

Earth doesn’t become an ape planet without the super-intelligent chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis). Caesar was born in a lab in San Francisco, where his mother was given a viral injection called ALZ 112, an Alzheimer’s drug developed by a company named Gensys and its star research scientist Will Rodman (James Franco).

One day Will has a breakthrough with a chimp named Bright Eyes, so-called for the bright green flecks found in her eyes and the only known side effect of the 112 drug. On that same day, as Will presents to the Gensys board his findings, Bright Eyes escapes her cell and goes on a rampage that ends with her death on the boardroom table. The drug is canceled, but Will gains a friend, a young chimp he will eventually call Caesar.

Caesar when he’s just a little baby.

Caesar has inherited the 112 drug, and he shows an intelligence beyond anything his mother showed. At age two he could complete puzzles meant for eight-year-old humans. He knows hundreds of sign words. As an adult at age eight, his IQ doubled in one year.

Great intelligence often leads to a questioning mind, and Caesar has one. His contented childhood leads to a constrained adulthood. During his eight years living in Will’s attic, Caesar learns of human interaction from a star-shaped window. His only adventures outside are to climb amongst the redwoods of Muir Woods National Monument.

One afternoon Caesar sees a dog with a leash much like Caesar’s. He growls at the dog, proving his dominance, but later wants to know his origin. “What is Caesar?” he asks Will in sign, who obliges by telling him about Bright Eyes, Gensys, and ALZ 112.

It’s a sad story, and it’s about to deteriorate. After an altercation in which Caesar protects Will’s father and attacks their neighbor, animal control sends Caesar to the San Bruno Ape Correctional Facility. Imprisoned for a few days, Caesar learns to interact with his hairier species of ape, to control them, and ultimately to lead them.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes really takes off as Caesar interacts with his kind. In San Bruno he’s immediately challenged by the resident alpha. Caesar is frightened, but he’s far too smart to let a dumb ape rule him.

In several scenes Caesar learns the lay of his prison through observation and the theft of a multitool. He releases Buck, the lone gorilla, and creates a powerful ally in so doing. Caesar uses tricks to force the alpha to recognize him as the new ape in charge.

Pretty soon Caesar is leading the apes in sign language training. This occurs after he breaks into Will’s house to steal a gas-released viral upgrade of 112 called, of course, ALZ 113. Caesar creates a new breed of ape as intelligent as he is (perhaps more so, since the 113 drug is a stronger virus) that he will lead from the horrors of San Bruno to the freedom of Muir Woods.

Villain (2/10)

Unearthing a villain in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is hard. I discuss the Landons bellows, and their late appearance nudges them into the henchmen category. Is it Jacobs (David Oyelowo), the greedy head of the research department at Gensys? He’s pretty bad. This is a guy who, in one scene, hates, loves, hates, and loves Will’s idea to restart testing of his Alzheimer’s drug.

Jacobs bails on his coworkers when the apes run rampant through his office. He orders the extermination of all lab chimps after Bright Eyes runs into a conference room. Finally, he has a villain-like death, the last human to die.

Caesar’s true enemy is the entire human race. Humans in Africa chase, menace, and capture his mother, sending her from the jungle to a lab in San Francisco. His proverbial father, Will, forces him to live in an attic. Presumably the third human Caesar ever interacts with is Will’s neighbor, who threatens to beat him with a bat.

Will’s chief motivation for keeping Caesar is to test on him and use his blood to help create a serum to keep his father’s Alzheimer’s at bay. After Caesar defends Will’s father in an altercation with the rude neighbor, Caesar is sent to animal jail to suffer at the hands of careless and hateful animal jailers.

Humans neglect, probe, torture, electrocute, hose, shoot, shoot at, club, imprison, threaten, and try to kill Caesar and most of the other apes. After the credits roll the humans get their just desserts. ALZ 113 encircles the globe and kills most of the humans.

Action/Effects (8/10)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is another feather in the cap of the unmatched career of Andy Serkis. Famous for playing Gollum in two installments of the Lord of the Rings franchise, Serkis took on the more nuanced role of an ape.

Caesar is an ape with human-level intelligence, and that called for a human actor to play him. Serkis might be the world’s most recognizable actor who’s real face is barely known. Back with New Zealand’s WETA Workshop, Serkis nails the performance.

Andy Serkis cementing his legend.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes allowed its motion capture actors, up to six at a time, to wear the white dots now familiar as the genesis of the technology while acting on a real set and not a sound stage. Serkis and others were inside the animal jail and on the Golden Gate Bridge aping apes.

Serkis’s skill shows in the slow progression from carefree young ape to disillusioned older ape to principled leader ape. Showing such a transformation on a human face is hard enough; showing it on an ape face through motion capture more difficult, but the change is clear.

There’s no mistaking Caesar as anything but a CGI character, but it’s the acting that sets him apart from countless other CGI characters. You know that Caesar is faked, but that a real actor stands behind the mask, so to speak.

As for the action, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is more interested in the character development of its hero. The gun blazing that defines the series in later editions doesn’t show up until the final act.

The film must convince us, the humans who will be eviscerated by the ALZ 113 virus released by Gensys and Caesar, that Caesar is an ape to root for. More time is needed to show why he eventually turns on the humans, and the movie succeeds.

Sidekicks (2/8)

Will Rodman is the chief aid to Caesar, though he doesn’t know it. Early he tells Caesar that he is his father, and in a powerful sense that’s true. Will developed ALZ 112 (and perhaps 1-111?), the drug that made Caesar the genius he is.

Will developed 112 and tests it on chimps because he believes it can cure Alzheimer’s, a disease close to his heart because his dad suffers from it. The screenwriters struck gold with this plot point. Many viewers have seen the effects of the disease, at it is a horror, made worse because it effects the loved ones as much as, but differently than, the diseased.

Will on the right, Caesar on the left.

That 112 makes the chimps much smarter, and presumably more aware of the horrors of their confinement, is lost on Will. He wants to test the drug on humans, but Gensys won’t let him. He tests it on his father anyway and finds that, “My father didn’t just recover,” he tells his boss, “he improved.”

Will’s dad ain’t the only one to improve, of course, as Caesar leaps around the swank San Francisco pad becoming a genius ape, easily the smartest non-human on the planet, and probably smarter than many humans.

Will loves Caesar, but not enough to let him go. The government, and by implication the human race, tears them apart anyway, fearful of what Caesar can do.

Maurice the orangutan: Caesar makes friends in San Bruno, and the benevolent orangutan named Maurice (for the actor who played Dr. Zaius in the original film) is his chief ally.

Maurice was a circus ape and there learned sign. He knows that the smartest apes in San Bruno are sent to Gensys, and Caesar knows what happens there. Caesar explains his reasons for leading the apes to Maurice.

Maurice

Maurice asks “Why cookie Rocket?” after Caesar allows the former alpha to distribute cookies to the other apes. Caesar uses a stick to illustrate his reasoning. He twice snaps the twig pieces. “Apes alone weak,” he signs. He stacks the four pieces together and tries and fails to break them. “Apes together strong.”

Koba: This scarred ape comes to Gensys later in the movie as a veteran of labs and is given the first dose of ALZ 113. He’s not happy about it, and he takes his revenge later on Jacobs, the man who authorized the tests.

Kobs spelling the name of his antagonist.

Henchmen (1/8)

Caesar is menaced during his time in the San Bruno ape jail by the Landons, father and son (Brian Cox and Tom Felton). As soon as those guys appeared I knew Caesar was in trouble. That’s Draco Malfoy and the guy who tried to kill all the X-Men mutants!

And I was right! Junior enjoys hosing down the apes and psychologically torturing them. Senior sends the apes to Gensys for testing. Together they menace the animals in their care and prove that corruption is alive and well in the animal control ranks of local governments. Shame!

Stunts (1/6)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as effects-laden as a film gets. Stunts are hard to find. Let’s talk action.

Caesar spends a few scenes molding the apes to fit his vision of “apes together strong.” He also uses the new 113 drug to gas his brethren and give them the same intelligence he has. Caesar gets his first taste of human killing when he fights back against Landon Jr.

Caesar draws the bully into the play area. Caesar stands alone, baiting the man into a fight. Landon uses his handheld shocker to strike Caesar. The ape takes the shots until he can’t stand anymore, and he blocks a strike from Landon. Landon calls him a “damn, dirty ape.” Caesar huffs, puffs, and shouts, “NO.”

All the apes, human and chimp, are shocked, including Caesar. Shocked by the speech, that is. Caesar locks Landon and his subordinate Rodney into cages and releases the chimps, gripping the shock stick like it’s the leadership baton. Well, it is, kind of, and Landon wants it back. He opens his unlocked cage door. Caesar has left the shocker on the floor, but he does hold the hose. Landon picks up the shocker as Caesar turns the hose on him, and the results are shocking–to death. A charred Landon exits this mortal coil.

Time for the apes to bail. Caesar leads them to literally break through a glass ceiling. They run around the San Francisco area, climbing hills and scouting locations. Caesar wants recruits, and he knows two places to get them.

First on the list is Gensys. The apes crash through the glass walls of the company’s headquarters, knocking out security cameras on their way in. They have learned quickly in their one day of human-level intelligence. In moments the apes have released the chimps currently held in the labs. They surround Jacobs and force him to escape.

Gensys security is not prepared for genius chimp invasion (what security firm is?), but it does react quickly, calling in a Highway Patrol chopper to escort Jacobs from the building and leave the regular folk behind.

The apes flee Gensys and make for the zoo. Buck the gorilla collides with the iron poles enclosing the chimps and the freed apes run and swing through the city with Caesar. The next several scenes follow the animals as they run rampant in downtown San Francisco.

An animal control fool nets a chimp and throws it in the back of his van. Next thing he knows there’s an iron spear flying in through the roof. Another strikes the hood. Caesar’s old alpha opponent, Rocket, rips the van doors off and rescues the caught ape as the van squeals away.

Buck and Maurice land perfect shots on two cop cars, one with a sewer cover and another with a parking meter torn from the concrete.

Caesar climbs a streetcar that crests a hill and offers a view of the path to freedom: the mist-cloaked Golden Gate Bridge.

Climax (2/6)

Inbound traffic has the Golden Gate at a standstill. The only things moving are Caesar and his ape army, running across the crunchable steel and glass of the stopped vehicles.

That’s well and good for the SFPD, because they have barricaded the northern exit. The lone police copter carrying Jacobs hovers nearby. Jacobs has warned the officers that these are smarter than your average apes, but will they heed his words?

Will and his girlfriend are there. Will hopes to help Caesar, but there’s very little he can do. This is Caesar’s show now. Caesar and the apes reach the end of the traffic and find a bus blocking all lanes. That ain’t right, and Caesar sniffs trouble. Beyond the bus is fog, and in the fog are machine-gun-armed cops.

Caesar calls a halt. He sends several apes up the cables and to swing along the beams underneath the road. From the southern end gallop police officers on horseback. The humans club the trailing apes. Caesar won’t take these attacks; he leaps into a cop. A gorilla also attacks a cop and nearly kills him until Caesar tells him not to. These apes are not here to kill humans, only to live freely.

The humans have no qualms. The sniper in the helicopter shoots an ape from the top of the bridge. The sight of the first casualty of the human-ape war spurs the survivors to move faster. On the bridge, five gorillas put their shoulders into the bus and knock it on its side, sliding it toward the cops, who open fire. The bus absorbs the bullets.

A riderless horse gallops through the fog. The humans are aghast. Suddenly, up pops Caesar in the saddle, shouting and announcing the attack. The apes strike at close range, easily and quickly beating the cops with their own guns. The only gun dangerous to the apes is on the helicopter. Jacobs spots Caesar and directs its fire toward him, the leader. Caesar enters a cop car, finds a chain, and emerges to hurl it at the machine gun menacing him.

A gorilla, possibly Buck, observes Caesar is the target of gunfire. He shoves his leader aside and roars at the helicopter. He sprints toward it, taking bullets in the chest, not stopping until he’s leapt off the bridge and into the helicopter. If you’ve seen a chopper before, you know that they don’t have much room for 400-pound gorillas. The helicopter spins out of control, crashes into the bridge, explodes, and burns in a massive explosion that’s almost too big for this movie.

And like that the fight is over. The helicopter dangles from the bridge. Jacobs, somehow alive, clings to it. Caesar overlooks his tormentor. He wants to kill Jacobs, but there’s another ape who suffered worse under Jacobs. With a nod Caesar allows Koba to step into the scene and kick the helicopter into the San Francisco Bay. Jacobs falls with it, screaming.

The apes are free to swing to Muir Woods. Will, the closest this planet will come to a historian of the rise of the ape planet, drives a cop car to find his chimp son. He blames himself, as he should, and asks that Caesar stop. “You know what they’re capable of,” he says. Will asks Caesar to come home. Caesar takes Will’s neck and pulls him close. The ape leans toward Will’s ear. “Caesar is home,” he says.

Caesar climbs a redwood crown and surveys the city, the planet, he is to inherit.

Jokes (0/4)

Will’s neighbor changed from villain to pitiable in his few scenes. First, he appears with a baseball bat, threatening to beat a young Caesar because the ape was in his garage messing with his kid’s bike. Fair. You don’t want to see a chimp in your garage.

This guy is the movie’s most tragic character.

Later, the neighbor menaces Will’s dad for wrecking his precious black Mustang. Doesn’t he know the man has Alzheimer’s? He’s had the disease for at least eight years, we can assume. What asshole would do that?

Caesar agrees. He notices the aggressive finger pointing and bursts out of the house to attack the neighbor. The guy tries to run inside, but Caesar kicks him in the chest. Rattled, the neighbor runs down the street as Caesar stalks him in the trees. Caesar lands on the man and bites off his pointing finger.

Later, Franklin, the primatologist who is sneezing blood, comes to Will’s house and bangs on all the doors. The neighbor confronts him and gets sneezed on for his trouble. Now we’re sad for the guy, because he’s Patient One.

Finally, after Caesar steals the 113 from Will’s fridge, he leaps onto the broken Mustang as an afterthought. That’s just funny. The neighbor, who turns out to be a pilot, will spread the virus to Paris, and from there it conquers the world. From guy who didn’t want a chimp in his garage to the agent who helped kill the human race, Will’s neighbor is an important character who is nameless.

Setting (2/4)

Alfred Hitchcock loved San Francisco, and the city’s beauty is unmatched in America, if not the world. The city looks beautiful from the stunning heights of the redwoods. Will’s pad is posh, sporting a spiral staircase and book shelves lining the walls.

Commentary (0/2)

Offensiveness (0/-2)

There’s an actual Indian person in a speaking role! Oyelowo is a big wig at a pharmaceutical company!

Others

  • Some astronauts flying to Mars are lost in space, by the way. Seemed important.
  • Caesar’s ape crew literally breaks through a glass ceiling.

Summary (23/68): 34%

A stellar performance by Andy Serkis as an ape is must-see viewing. Human performances are, thankfully, rightfully, sidelined to Caesar’s journey. These apes are human smart, making them swell subjects for film treatment, creatures with passions, rivalries, fears, and goals.