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Great Apes!: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

In the seventh and penultimate entry in Nerdist’s Great Apes! series, we take a look at the beloved and visually amazing reboot from three years ago. 

Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which, with it’s double “of the,” carries the ungainliest title of the series) is simultaneously a reboot of the Apes franchise, a prequel to the Apes franchise, and an outright re-purposing of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes from 1972. In 2011, the world was drunk on the notion of the origin story (and we still are, really) thanks to the continued influence of 2005’s Batman Begins. The decade has been stuffed with reboots and remakes, and many of those tended to focus on newly imagined origins to familiar characters and stories. Since Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was already essentially an origin story (it answered the question as to how apes came to be dominant over humans), it makes sense that, in 2011, we go back to that material.

This rendition of the Apes universe imagines a more scientific and more closely explained reason as to why apes became intelligent, and came to dominate humanity. It turns out it was a virus that could grow ape brains at the same time it killed humans. Handy. Many of the details of Conquest are ported over here, including a chimp named Caesar, his first word (“No!”), and the leadership of an ape revolt. The apes in this movie are all achieved through impressive advanced digital effects; there are no actors or animals on camera in this film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes sad

A human doctor named Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. In movies, this never turns out well, as it often leads to giant sharks, mutant creatures, or, as here, sentient apes. The medicine Rodman invents leaks into a newborn chimp named Caesar, whom Rodman secretly takes home to raise in the suburbs of San Francisco. Caesar, played by Andy Serkis via motion capture, seems to have near-human intelligence levels. When Caesar attacks a pushy neighbor, he is sent to prison where he gathers up ape forces, break out, steals some of the same medicine that made him smarter, and feeds it to his ape army. The film’s final scenes involve an ape revolt and a chase across The Golden Gate Bridge.

The human characters are so boring in this film, they’re hardly worth a mention. Indeed, when Caesar is incarcerated, the filmmakers wisely begin eschewing the humans altogether, focusing entirely on the mute apes. The special effects on the apes is so impressive, however, that we are riveted and convinced throughout that chimpanzees are forming a power struggle within a prison. The prison sequences are amongst the best in the entire series.

There was some talk in 2012 about the possibility of Andy Serkis garnering a nomination for a Best Actor Oscar. What Serkis does is impressive, and he has a naturally expressive face that is especially conducive to motion capture (this was the man who became famous portraying Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies), but his performances are, we must recall, augmented by special effects; one of the main reasons we can appreciate his performance is because the digital effects are so great. Perhaps someday there will be a Best Adapted Performance Oscar, and Serkis can begin collecting then.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Franco

The tone of this new Apes film (which is, as we will find, the beginning of a new Apes chronology) is less somber and somehow more serious than the previous Apes movies. While there is an inherent sense of camp to the notion of talking apes, this film doesn’t up the silliness any further. The tone is downbeat, steely, and earnest. This is the dominant ethos of modern blockbuster filmmaking: Earnest approaches to fantasy material. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes went from being tragic to being determined. In the next Apes film, in keeping with what we have been given in this new chronology, we’ll see a re-purposing of Battle for the Planet of the Apes.

Join me next time for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014).

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4 comments

  • I strongly disagree with what you said about Mr. Serkis. What he does IS acting and should be treated as such. There is not a separate award for Best Acting While wearing a lot of Makeup. Or an aware for Best Female Actress Doing a Really Good Impression Of Another Language.

    Would you say the same of the actor who Played the Phantom of the Opera? Or any acting performance that required some mask or makeup?

    When you see Caesar showing emotion, remember, you are seeing Andy Serkis. That is Andy Serkis acting and it is his work that makes Caesar so believable. 

    This is new technology in support of old fashioned acting. Don’t lose sight of that fact.

    • I agree!  What about the guy in V for Vendetta?  His face was always hidden.  What about Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney, Jr., whose horror film roles required so much makeup?  Or the characters in The Wizard of Oz?  Or for that matter, people who play roles in which no speaking is involved, like Marlee Matlin in Children of a Lesser God, or the characters in Clan of the Cave Bear.  Should the talents of people who play these kinds of roles be dismissed simply b/c they require extreme make-up (special effects), or because their face is made to look non-human, or because they communicate non-verbally?  It is precisely BECAUSE Serkis is so talented that people know who he is and the roles that he’s played.  His talent has been pivotal to the believability of his characters and the success of his films!