2011: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
The original Planet of the Apes very nearly made this list way back at the beginning for 1968, but I had to give the nod to Mel Brooks’ The Producers. Escape from the Planet of the Apes was in the running for 1971, but I needed to have a Stanley Kubrick film, and A Clockwork Orange was my best shot. Conquest of the Planet of the Apes had the misfortune of being up against The Godfather. And fear not: Tim Burton’s 2001 re-imagining was never even remotely considered. But, after 43 years and three times as the bridesmaid, the Apes series finally gets its due with an entry that not only honored the series’ past, but paved the way for its future.
Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat: there’s no shock ending here. You’re never going to top the reveal of the Statue of Liberty at the end of the original, so why even try? Burton twisted his film into knots trying to one up it, and ended up just making a confusing mess of things. But Rise is rife with knowing nods to its ancestry. There are echoes of lines from past films, homages to key scenes and the like, but the main thing it gets right is the spirit. This isn’t some twisted fun house like Burton turned the property into. There’s a more serious science fiction-y bent here. Yes, we bought a ticket to watch apes mess stuff up, but there’s plenty going on here about the ethics of laboratory testing, the nature and origins of intelligence, the importance of memory and quality of life; it’s a really smart film about apes messing stuff up. What’s also great to realize is that by casting this as the run-up to the creation of the titular planet, it basically makes our society the one Charlton Heston is so disdainful of in the original film. It’s a nice bit of circularity.
As great as the make-up in the original films was for its time, it really can’t hold a candle to the CGI work here. A big part of the effectiveness of Rise comes from the realism of the apes, the result of a combination of fantastic on-set work by Andy Serkis and a host of other motion capture actors and the painstaking work of Weta Digital to translate that into what look for all the world like living, breathing, thinking animals. Serkis’ performance here is easily on par with his work on Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, and while I’m not about to jump on his bandwagon and claim he’s the heart and soul of the character, Caesar definitely would have lost something without the personality Serkis put into him. A purist might grumble about the loss of a chance for some great practical make-up, but I’d argue the realism of the apes heightens the impact of the film. It’s really a case where the characters are so believable, you forget you’re watching a special effect.
And going forward, if this film was essentially an update of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the next film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, promises to be a better version of Battle for the Planet of the Apes, the disappointing final entry in the original series. Battle was made at a time of diminishing returns for the series, which shows in its scale and budget; the whole thing looks small and cheap. Now though, Dawn is coming off the surprisingly strong showing of Rise, with a bigger budget and a plum July release date. I don’t think anybody could have imagined back in 1968 when those damn dirty apes were pawing all over Heston that the world they were creating would endure through four sequels and two reboots, but here it is looking as hale and hearty as ever. There’s no business like monkey business.