War For The Planet Of The Apes is already being hailed by critics as an epic concluding chapter for what is now being called one of the best movie trilogies of all time. In honor of its release this week, I will be revisiting and reviewing the previous two entires in the rebooted Apes franchise, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes. I also plan on writing about one of my all time favorite movies: the original Planet Of The Apes with Charlton Heston. So needless to say, we’ll be talking about these damn dirty apes a lot this week.
Back in 2011, the idea of a reboot to the Apes franchise was scoffed at. Many people didn’t give the idea much credence, nor was there any reason to give it much credence. An attempt to reboot the franchise had already crashed and burned spectacularly with Tim Burton’s failed 2001 remake of the original. So when Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes finally did come out, and was actually good, it was a bit of a shock to everybody.
What makes this movie work so well is its sense of identity. By that I mean that this movie is an unapologetic character study, and seeks to be nothing more. While it is a summer blockbuster about apes taking over the world, it never feels the need to get too loud. For some, that might be a bit of a turn off; it is a slower burn than expected. However, when it comes to fresh filmmaking, there are few places you can go with Apes that you haven’t already been. Grand set pieces had been seen, and the novelty of smart apes had been explored in six other films prior. So the writers of this movie, along with director Rupert Wyatt, took the approach of making the story extremely personal for its main character, Caesar. At its core, this movie is about him growing up and discovering who he is, both in terms of his origins and in terms of himself as a leader. He has a unique place in the world that is often difficult for him to grapple with, the film explores that brilliantly.
They really humanize Caesar effectively. In the beginning, when he is a newborn, his cuteness is capitalized upon. As the story progresses however, he begins to resemble a child more-so than a pet; he has genuine moments of humanity that allow us as an audience to root for him as a character. Essentially, by humanizing the ape the filmmakers de-humanized the humans, who are themselves complex characters but are undeniably corrupt in their motivations. David Oyelowo, for example, plays a businessman who has to make hard decisions, and we understand that; even so, his desires are driven by pure greed. So it stings us when his greed drives him to do things to these apes that are so inhumane. The result is us an audience being able to root for the rebellion of these apes, which essentially means the beginning of the downfall of the human race. In order for one to pull off this magic trick, the character of Caesar really needs to be put under a microscope; and that’s what the film does. It relishes in the quiet moments, while saving its grand and exciting set pieces for the last act of the film. As I said, for some this might be a turn off at first; but the result is genuine investment in the central character of this entire franchise. That investment paid off in Dawn, which took the franchise to more cinematic heights in terms of action set-pieces; and it sounds like it is going to pay off in War, as well, as it aims to take the stakes even higher.
James Franco is excellent in the movie as Caesar’s owner/father figure, a scientist at the lab who is responsible for Caesar’s intelligence. He provides a sympathetic and understanding human for the movie, which it does need in order for Caesar to have some sympathy as a leader. His attachment to Franco’s character is what separates him from the apes who have pure distaste for the humans, like Koba, who already in the first installment reeks of trouble. In this sense, Franco’s likability contributes to Caesar’s likability. If Caesar were to be an ape that was hellbent on the death of all humans, as opposed to the liberation of apes, then the magic trick mentioned earlier would fall apart. But it’s his attachment to Franco, and their excellent chemistry onscreen, that allows us to further buy into Caesar’s leadership. He does like good humans, just like we do; but he doesn’t like bad humans, just like we don’t like them, and he seeks to liberate his kind from their cruelty. It’s a very understandable vice that he has, and I cannot give the filmmakers enough credit for making it a viable and relatable character element for Caesar.
Andy Serkis also deserves a lot of credit. The father of motion capture acting brings his all to this role, and it’s his performance that ultimately sells Caesar as a character. He’s sympathetic, but strong; he has intelligence, but also confused. All of these elements of the character, Serkis balances perfectly. He emotes each attribute brilliantly, and does so through a computer generated performance. It’s nothing short of incredible, and his work in the subsequent films in the franchise have continued to break new ground.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a perfect first film in a trilogy. It introduces us to its central character and really invests lots of time into molding his ideology, and making us understand his ideology along the way. By the end of the film, it provides a great preview of what “could be” in future Apes movies, and the next one took it to a whole new level.
I am curious as to whether or not the studio expected a genuinely great franchise out of this reboot, or just saw an opportunity to make money off a classic brand. Did they know that it would produce a sequel, and even a third installment? I guess we don’t know, or at least I don’t, but if they were not anticipating a franchise and this had been a solo movie, it also works well as a film on its own. Those sort of franchise movies, that could work just as well as solo movies without sequels, end up being the best kind of franchise movies. When filmmakers are more focused on characters and story, as opposed to set-up for future movies, then you end up with a great film.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Planet Of The Apes is indeed a great film.