You will believe apes will rise. Hell, you will want them to rise.
What you may not believe is how much this unexpectedly lovely movie is about this:
And not so much about this:
Not that there isn’t plenty of this:
You may not believe how unaffectedly sincere Rise of the Planet of the Apes is. Oh, it nods to the past, to its B-movie progenitors, and gets a laugh here and a snort of recognition there from that. But if the legacy Roddy McDowall in a monkey suit has left us with is one of goofy catchphrases and cheesy human bondage, there is nary a bit of snark here. Jokiness and hokeyness have been genetically engineered away, leaving something pure and sweet and poignant, a throwback to the humanist science fiction of the late 1960s and early 1970s. This is more Charly than Heston.
This Apes is so much not what I was anticipating — either from the trailer or from my general awareness of how Hollywood loves to remove genuine emotion and honest morality from anything it touches — that I hesitate to reveal even the least spoilerish moments of it. Even the ones that happen in the opening scenes of the film. Because there’s a simple joy to be had in merely discovering that there is still room for something more, even in a summer blockbuster primarily designed to appeal to popcorn crowds. The black-and-white I figured I was in for isn’t here at all. This isn’t a screed against genetic engineering or science in general, even though James Franco’s researcher does do some unethical things in the course of his work into diseases of the brain and drug therapies that might cure them. Franco’s Will Rodman is shockingly sympathetic, for what could have been an arrogant Doctor Frankenstein mad-scientist role, which is partly down to the smart script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, but much more so an emergent quality of Franco’s (Your Highness, The Green Hornet) sensitive and perceptive talent and the unsentimental direction by Rupert Wyatt (whose only major credit is the recent British indie The Escapist).
None of the hot-button issues here are hammered upon, only just lightly touched: the human treatment of animals, DNA manipulation, corporate greed, family values, the precarious tendrils upon which our global civilization thrives and could so easily fall. Which leaves room for some truly powerful, deeply touching moments — ones without an iota of the cornball to them — as the drug-enhanced genius chimp Caesar (motion-captured Andy Serkis: Brighton Rock, Inkheart) starts making discoveries about his uncomfortable place in the world. He asks a simple question, via sign language, that makes for one of the most unsettling moments on film this year, partly because it has no ready answer… as we see when Will’s quick and heartfelt response to it is soon undercut by the hard reality of a world not prepared to cope with the likes of Caesar.
What Wyatt and Serkis and the WETA FX team has done with Caesar here is astonishing, pushing back the boundaries of what the technology can do. Caesar is fully alive in a way that so many human movie characters often aren’t, a being of complex emotion who easily elicits complex compassion from us. He alone creates an unusual suspense for the film — suspense you didn’t even know you were gripped by until it climaxes in moments both utterly unexpected and perfectly right.
In the same way, even though we know how Apes must end — it’s right there in the title of the film! — it all feels so completely fluid and unforced that it’s as if we really don’t know where it will go at all. The action sequences contain actual drama. Often it’s all too easy to predict where any given cinematic car chase or shootout will go, but what we get here is nothing we’ve seen a thousand times before and have internalized the rhythms of. The battle on the Golden Gate Bridge between apes (post rise) and cops on horseback is startlingly fresh and original and hence unpredictable. And yet the film doesn’t attempt to do too much: there’s not only narrative room for a sequel (hints of which are sprinkled throughout the film), there’s emotional room, too. We want to know more about what happens to Caesar. The prospect is welcome, not something to dread.
When we talk about escaping to the movies, this is the kind of movie we’re talking about… or we should be. Escapism isn’t about what happens on the screen but what happens to us: You want to lose yourself in a movie. You want to be enraptured. You want to forget you’re watching a movie at all. This is the essence of the summer flick, and it’s one that seems to be forgotten more often than not. This is how you do it.