I’ll admit it- I haven’t seen any of the original Planet of the Apes movies (sorry, Mr. Heston). I do understand that there really isn’t a central character that stays around through the movies, and that generally each ending is sort of nihilistic. Besides that, I’m told to avoid the Tim Burton mess of an entry. I did manage to catch Rise of the Planet of the Apes in theaters, and I’m happy to say that movie pleasantly surprised me. It wasn’t life-changing, but it was a smart enough movie to get me into the theater one more time to watch a movie about talking apes. And that is my first point- these CGI apes look fantastic. So much computer work can be intrusive, but in this case it was effective. The actor/effects artists nailed facial expressions, and while it’s difficult to tell when the actor’s work ends and the artist’s enhancing begins, Andy Serkis stole the show as Caesar.
During the opening scenes, I was in a bit of a shock with monkeys doing sign language with no humans present, but by the end of the movie it seemed natural. Jason Clarke as Malcom was easily the most effective human character, with the others filling in the blanks, such as his wife Ellie (Keri Russell) who played the supportive spousal role who happens to know medicine. Malcom’s son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) is easily more memorable if only for his scenes with Maurice, everyone’s favorite primate.
Dawn excels in the villain category, with excellent examples on both human and ape sides. For the humans we have the hateful Carver, who blinds himself by blaming the apes for a virus that humans created. I still can’t decide if Gary Oldman‘s character Dreyfus was even supposed to be a villain. He came across as a sympathetic leader, especially during the scene where he finally sees his family’s pictures again. However he did end up being an antagonist to Malcom at the very end when he thought Malcom had lost his mind. Ultimately, it’s implied he could have been reasoned with if there had been more time to explain; after all he had already decided against violence earlier when he found out there was a peaceful alternative for the dam. It’s an interesting character only because of Oldman, because honestly he wasn’t given much content. I felt like there must have been some deleted scenes that filled in more blanks about him.
That being said, Koba easily takes top honors for best villain. He’s genuinely sympathetic as a victim who wants to keep his species alive, until he starts murdering anyone who stands in his way. At that point, we see what a monster he’s allowed himself to become, almost indistinguishable from the worst humans who had harmed him in the first place.
Basically, I appreciate how director Matt Reeves chose to go with a character-driven story when it would have been so easy to go the Michael Bay route with endless action scenes. One example of this is the ending sequence, which was actually cut short. Originally, the last few minutes focused on the apes on the Golden Gate Bridge, staring at a fleet of Navy warships approaching. Instead, we got a emotionally high final scene between the best human and ape characters of the movie (Malcom and Caesar). With deep villains, complex issues and standout visual effects, Reeves managed to pull off a sequel that’s even better than the (new) first movie.