Category: Planet of the Apes film

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

You’ll believe an ape can talk in this brilliant relaunch of a franchise that had become a joke

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), James Franco (Dr Will Rodman), Freida Pinto (Dr Caroline Aranha), John Lithgow (Charles Rodman), Brian Cox (John Landon), Tom Felton (Dodge Landon), David Oyelowo (Steven Jacobs), Terry Notary (Rocket/Bright Eyes), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Richard Ridings (Buck)

It was always a concept some found hard to take seriously. Actors, in heavy make-up, pretending to the Ape masters of Planet Earth. It didn’t help that, after the first few films in the Planet of the Apes franchise the quality took a complete nosedive. Quite a lot for Rise of the Planet of the Apes to overcome: could it take this staple of popular culture and make it not only not a joke, but something people actually wanted to see? Well yes it certainly could. Rise is an intelligent, cinematically rich, surprisingly low-key and brilliantly done relaunch.

It has the advantage of course of decades of special-effects development. Gone are the days of Roddy McDowell in a monkey suit. Now motion capture can literally transform an actor into a chimp. In a way that other Planet of the Apes films never could, it can make the Apes the centre of the film. And if you are going to call for an actor who can help you bring life to a motion capture created character, who else are you going to call but Andy Serkis?

Serkis plays Caesar, the ape who (those of us familiar with the franchise know) will become the founder of the Ape civilisation. The first Ape who stood up and said “No”. He’s the son of Bright Eyes, a chimp who receives ALZ-112, an experimental drug designed to cure Alzheimer’s. Its invented by Dr Will Rodman (James Franco), desperate to cure his father Charles (John Lithgow). The experiment goes wrong and Bright Eyes is killed – but not before giving birth to Caesar, who inherits unnatural levels of intelligence from the drug. Will protects and raises Caesar, treating him as a son. But when Caesar is taken from Will and placed in an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to see it as his mission to help his fellow apes. The revolution starts here.

Rise – for all it has a computer effect in almost every frame – works because it is small-scale intimate story. For a film full of nothing but effects, it feels remarkably like a sort of sci-fi relationship drama. It’s effectively about a child learning to become a man and find his own destiny, leaving behind a loving (but ineffective) father who, unknowingly, is blocking his progress, to stand as his own man (or rather ape). The motion capture is so stunningly well-done you forget that you are looking at a special effect for in almost every frame, and instead accept Caesar as our lead character.

Wyatt’s film eases us into this, centring Will (played with a generosity and warmth by James Franco) as our lead character and filtering our perception of Caesar through his eyes, as he grows up in his suburban house and learns to climb in San Francisco’s Redwood forests. The careful shift to making Caesar our central character – complete by the time we see him imprisoned in the dangerous environment of the ape sanctuary – is so masterfully done, that we hardly notice that large chunks of the second half of the film take place in wordless silence among the apes, Caesar’s thoughts and emotions communicated only by body language, expressive eyes and hand gestures.

To get that to work, you need a stunning actor behind it. Serkis’ performance is extraordinary: he used motion capture to become an ape, exactly capturing the physicality but also marrying it with real human emotions. We can look at Caesar’s face at any point and know exactly what he’s thinking and feeling. His joy in his home, his protective fury when a confused Charles is assaulted by a furious neighbour, his distress at being locked away, his fear and confusion at his new surroundings his hardening resolve and his determination to liberate his fellow apes. This is extraordinary stuff.

It’s not just Serkis. Every ape has a talented actor behind it. Notary is a master of ape physicality, Konoval creates a beautifully wise and tender orangutan, Ridings finds loyalty and tenderness in a gorilla, Christopher Gordon a psychotic energy to abused lab-rat ape Koba. The marriage between actor and ape is perfect, and means we are completely on their side against mankind (be it in the lab or the ape sanctuary) they are up against. Wordless sequences of Caesar’s ingenuity: establishing himself as the Alpha with shrewd combat tactics, winning friends with cookies, stealing drugs to gift the other apes his own intelligence (their silent wonder at their interior worlds expanding is brilliantly done) and finally leading a revolt (including that goose-bumps rousing “No!”) is superb.

Wyatt’s skilful, calm and controlled visual storytelling is a triumph in making the determination of a CGI Ape a punch-the-air moment. Wyatt makes each Ape as much – sometimes more – of a character than the humans and weaves an emotionally complex story for Caesar. This isn’t about an angry Ape leading bloody revolution. This is a confused, gentle teenager trying to work out who he is. Is he Will’s son or his pet (do sons normally wear leashes in public)? Is he a dreamer or a leader? And, above all, is a man or an ape? When push comes to shove, where will his loyalties lie?

This makes for emotionally rich stuff – so much so that when the Apes make a final act stand for freedom on the Golden Gate Bridge, you’ll shed tears over the self-sacrifice of one of their number. It’s also an intriguing look at humanity, none of whom come out as well as they could. The ‘good’ people – like Will and ape sanctuary worker Rodney – are kind but ineffective (everything Will does goes horrifically wrong, despite his best intentions). The ‘bad’ – Oyelowo’s money-first Drugs Company CEO or Cox and Felton as abusive ape sanctuary owners – are corrupt, selfish and greedy. No wonder the apes, stuck in a hole and only pulled out to be sold for drugs trials, feel so angry.

It’s not perfect. There are some clumsy, awkward homages to the original film (the worst being Felton shrieking “it’s a mad house!”) that don’t pay off. The human characters are at times two dimensional. But that doesn’t matter when the story-telling around the chimps is so superbly done. Wyatt fills the film with effects, but focuses so completely on character and emotion that it never feels like that for a moment. Rise is a small, intimate film about personal growth and a struggle for limited freedom. It helps make it a powerful and highly effective one – and easily superior to every Apes film made since 1968. A superb start to what became a wonderful trilogy.

War for the Planet of the Apes (2017)

Andy Serkis goes to war as Ape Leader Caesar in the final entry in the new Planet of the Apes saga

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Woody Harrelson (The Colonel), Steve Zahn (Bad Ape), Karin Konoval (Maurice), Terry Notary (Rocket), Ty Olsson (Red), Michael Adamthwaite (Luca), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Sara Canning (Lake), Gabriel Chavarria (Preacher)

The Planet of the Apes trilogy of the past few years is so far superior to the original films (bar the first) that even decent efforts still stand tall over their forebears. War isn’t quite the classic you want, but it is a worthy companion to the two previous films, and sets a tough act to follow for (inevitable) sequels and remakes.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) is nearing the end of a long war with humanity, desperate for peace to allow the apes to set up their own home. But after a night attack by demagogue rogue soldier The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leaves Caesar suffering a huge personal loss, he finally succumbs to his rage and anger and goes on a quest for vengeance, accompanied only by his oldest and closest companions. Along the way he discovers the doom of mankind has already begun, with a virus slowly robbing them of the power of speech and reason.

It’s a slight shame that the final film in an excellent trilogy isn’t quite the knock-out I hoped it would be. It’s a good film, but not a great one. It won’t exactly leave anyone disappointed, but it doesn’t quite send the entire trilogy out on as triumphant a high as hoped. Part of the problem is that I just found it a slightly more straightforward, less thematically rich than the other films. It’s more of a simple “revenge” story, married up with a host of film genre references from Apocalypse Now to Westerns to old-school Hollywood Biblical epics.

The title suggests a bit more action than the film actually offers. The war, such as it is, turns out to be almost a macguffin – a feud between rival groups of humans rather than an ape-human smackdown. It’s actually the most internalised conflict yet – the war to decide the sort of planet the apes will inherit is in the soul of the sort of leader Caesar will decide to be. Like all revenge dramas around sympathetic characters, the big question is will our hero decide to lay aside vengeance – to be the better man. It’s a tribute to the film that the answer is as difficult and unclear-cut as you expect the question would be.

As this film, more than any other, is ape-centric (there are at best three human characters), it rests even more than on the strength of Serkis’ acting. It feels unoriginal to say it now, but what Serkis has achieved is astonishing. He has turned a special effect with an actor behind it into a living, breathing character – someone you never doubt is real. His performance is a complex internalisation, as far away from flashy as you can get – it’s all about the eyes, and Serkis’ shine with life.

It’s lucky that Serkis is  here, as he elevates the entire film to a higher level, where otherwise it can occasionally  feel like a careful assembly of bits and pieces of other films. Caesar and gang’s journey through the snowy depths of North America looks and feels like a spaghetti western. By the end of the film, Caesar feels like a Moses figure leading his people to the promised land. The biggest influence by far however is Apocalypse Now. The soldiers all feel like angry Vietnamese war vets, the opening battles through the forest have a definite air of the jungle, while Woody Harrelson’s slightly underpowered villain is so reminiscent of Kurtz, he even does a Brando impersonation at points. The structure of the film even matches Heart of Darkness, Caesar on a trek “down river” to confront a rogue soldier turned cult leader.

It’s not exactly unique and recycles much of its content, but Reeves is still a damn fine director and not only shoots with dynamism, but also ensures there is heart and depth behind everything. There is a subtle understory of ape civil war, with the followers of Koba now serving the humans out of an “enemy of my enemy” mentality. Making the Colonel the leader of a maniacal cult also makes him a good contrast with Caesar’s standing with the apes. At least two characters develop in ways far different than you are led to expect, due to clever playing with the viewer’s expectations of how movies are “supposed” to pan out.

So why doesn’t it all quite work as well? If it’s so full of good stuff, why doesn’t it sing like the others? Well maybe it’s a little too long. Maybe the Colonel isn’t quite a good enough antagonist for Caesar. Maybe the grim mood and focus on the revenge arc mean some of the thematic richness of the previous films has been lost. Maybe there just isn’t quite enough “humanity” in this story of apes. It’s hard to put your finger on – but it’s just not quite as good as the others, not quite as memorable. It’s a strong well-made film, very well directed and superbly acted by Serkis and the other motion capture artists – but it’s not quite the classic it feels like it could be. You’ll be slightly unsatisfied but find it hard to work out exactly why.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

Andy Serkis becomes the Ape Caesar in a triumphal marriage of performance and special effects

Director: Matt Reeves

Cast: Andy Serkis (Caesar), Toby Kebbell (Koba), Jason Clarke (Malcolm), Gary Oldman (Dreyfus), Keri Russell (Ellie), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Alexander), Kirk Acevedo (Carver), Judy Greer (Cornelia), Terry Notary (Rocket), Karin Konoval (Maurice)

In 2011, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was another attempt to relaunch the money-spinning ape vs. human franchise. Unlike Tim Burton’s disastrous 2001 effort, it took a stance that felt truly unique. Sure, it still felt the need to reference back to the original film in places, but it was a terrific piece of story-telling. Anticipation was high for this sequel – and it met those expectations.

Ten years after the outbreak of a virus that has decimated the human race, the apes have built their own community in the forests near San Francisco, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis). A human party, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke), enters the forest looking to restart a hydroelectric dam to supply power to the human’s San Francisco community. As the two communities collide, Caesar and Malcolm must work out a truce, despite the doubts of human leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) and Caesar’s lieutenant, former lab-chimp Koba (Toby Kebbell).

Dawn is an intelligent and visceral piece of film-making, which enrichens the first film in the series, as well as offering a surprisingly deep analysis of human (and ape) nature. Marry this  up with some quite astonishing special effects, and staggering work from the actors creating the apes through motion capture, and you have a hugely rich science fiction film that helps to cement this trilogy as the finest version of the Apes story so far. It’s also damn good fun.

Even more than the first film, Dawn places apes front-and-centre. The film is book-ended with close up shots of Caesar’s eyes, the determination and resolve in them springing from very different causes. The questioning of the nature of humanity revolves around Caesar – the leader balancing the urge to protect his own people against a willingness to support the needs of his people’s only potential threat. Caesar is the most humanitarian character– yet his determination to view other apes as does himself prevents him from seeing Koba’s treachery. It’s his own generosity that is his Achilles heel.

Andy Serkis, the Master of Motion Capture, has mastered this art like few other actors, but his performance as Caesar is his triumph. The degree of emotion he is able to communicate is astounding, while his physicality is extraordinary – it’s a perfect marriage of ape traits and human characteristics. It’s a triumph as well of special effects, but you quickly forget this and embrace the character you are watching. Serkis gives Caesar a deep hinterland of warmth and emotion, a desperation to protect what he has built, touched with a hint of blindness to the reactions his dismissal of Koba’s concerns will have on someone so damaged.

What’s interesting is that, although the film swings heavily in favour of the Apes, it’s the humans who become the victims of aggression, and the humans who are the most open (or desperate) to negotiation and co-operation. A simpler film would have turned Gary Oldman’s Dreyfus into a despotic counterpart to the traumatised Koba. Instead, Dreyfus proves surprisingly open to negotiation, demonstrates great affection for his followers, weeps ecstatically over finally being able to turn his tablet back on and look at photos of his family and only resorts to drastic measures after the human colony seems doomed.

The villain of the piece is Koba (remarkable work from Toby Kebbell). The film, though offering many indicators of Koba’s ruthless lack of regard for any life but his own, gives us reasons (even though these are sometimes stated directly for his feelings and the trauma that lie underneath them. The film doesn’t short change us on Koba’s obvious bravery in battle or his ability to inspire troops. Koba’s inability to adjust his thinking (unlike any other character in the film) leads to the violence. Just as Caesar’s urge to see all apes as meeting his own standards allows violence to grow around him, so Koba’s urge to judge all humans by the standards he has given them leads him to sacrifice countless ape lives in a bloody attack.

These themes of divided loyalty and the damage our own urges (for both good and evil) play out in a cracking storyline, packed to the rafters with action, shot with a confidence and skill by Matt Reeves. Despite being a film that always feels about larger themes, it wears this rather lightly, and offers more than enough popcorn thrills to please any Ape action fan. Koba’s assault on the human stronghold is both grippingly exciting, but also unbearably tense – the film embraces the grim sacrifice and slaughter of war. The final confrontation between Caesar and Koba is shot with a giddying, vertigo-inducing sharpness.

The ape effects are, it goes without saying, extraordinary. These are expressive, living, breathing characters – a brilliant meeting of some wonderful acting and brilliant special effects. Could you imagine a few years ago a film being anchored by a special effect ape played by motion capture? You quickly forget that they are not ‘real’ and accept them as genuine characters. Even more so than Rise, Caesar and the apes are front-of-centre and this is Caesar’s story. Serkis is of course a huge part of this – his influence and dedication to the motion capture and ape portrayal is superb.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a terrific and thought provoking epic film, one that deepens, darkens and enriches the previous film and leaves an audience with not only a lot to consider but also highly thrilled. Unlike the previous film it doesn’t shoe-horn in weak references to earlier films, but concentrates on telling a terrific and character-led story. It’s another terrific entry into a series that feels like it could become one of the great science fiction trilogies.