When I was a kid, I was a huge fan of the original “Planet of the Apes.” I thought it was just because there were cool guys in monkey costumes, not to mention the scantily clad slave girl, Nova. At twelve, that was about as far as I took it. But as I got older, I realized the movie is a lot deeper and carries much broader implications than I originally thought.
The Rod Serling screenplay is pure “Twilight Zone,” though expanded to a full feature-length without any loss of quality. Despite some scenery-chewing by Heston, and a few cutesy moments with the apes, the original “Planet of the Apes” has risen in my estimation from just a good movie, to a truly great one. I bring this up because, despite such rich source material, every other “Apes” film has been either terrible, or just this side of it. And there’s been quite a few. “Apes” was such a success, that the studios hurried to get another in production. Heston, for one reason or another, decided to do no more than cameo in the second, and it was all downhill from there. The original series had five films, plus a couple of ill-conceived television projects. In the original (spoiler alert! Although the new DVD cases spoil it pretty well, themselves) we learn that the planet in “Planet of the Apes” is actually Earth in some far-flung future, and the other movies attempt to show us how we got there.
They’re all pretty bad, but it’s not for lack of a story to tell. I guess the studios felt the potential profits from these guaranteed hits was more important than little things like story development.
It was these two warring realities that gave me pause about this week’s prequel/reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes;” one, that there was a great story to tell, and two, that of the six total stories previously told, (this includes Tim Burton’s awful remake in 2001) five were pretty bad. Luckily, and surprisingly, to be frank, this latest “Apes” film knocks it out of the park.
James Franco plays Will Rodman, a genetics researcher who has spent the last five years working on a gene therapy for the brain — a drug, or more precisely, an engineered virus, that allows the brain to create new neural pathways, bypassing damaged areas. The drug, if perfected, has the potential to be huge, but Rodman, who naturally works for a greedy pharmaceutical company, has more than fame and fortune in mind. Charles Rodman, our hero’s father, is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Will is willing to do anything to restore him to the man he was.
Rodman’s company does their primary research on chimpanzees, and it is in one such subject that amazing results are being seen. It looks like all signs are go until a terrible tragedy halts the project in its tracks, leaving Will with not one, but two moral dilemmas to wrestle with.
One, to go ahead and illegally administer his now stolen drug to his father, and two, to rescue a baby chimp, the son of the successful test subject. After the project went awry, all the remaining chimps were destroyed, but baby Caesar is spirited away to live in secret with Will and Charles in the suburbs of San Francisco. Charles remarkably recovers.
Fast forward five years and it has become obvious that Caesar is not like other apes. His intellect appears to outmatch all other apes and equals that of an adult human. Apparently, the gene therapy had an unexpected consequence. The virus, transferred from mother to unborn son, has created a new brain structure, one with unlimited potential.
But what does this mean for Caesar? Is he a pet, an equal, or something in between? While this existential struggle is going on at home, things are happening at the lab. There are more chimps, a new version of the drug, and a potentially catastrophic outcome.
The film, which had been taking its time, slowly letting us get to know the characters, shifts into high gear as Will and Caesar hurtle toward the inevitable climax.
If you’ve seen any ads or trailers for this film, the image of an army of rioting apes will not be a surprise, but what is surprising is how subtly and capably the filmmakers steer us from a world we’re familiar with to an out-of-control madhouse. The adjective that kept coming back to me when I pondered the movie was “confident.”
Director Rupert Wyatt expertly steers the treacherous waters, combining fan-friendly call backs to the original series, as when one character tells Caesar, “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” with a mature and very well-thought-out story. The movie never feels like it’s pandering, and never seems to lose focus.
A lesser filmmaker, Michael Bay, for instance, would have rushed to the big ape battle climax, but Wyatt lets us get there in a believable way. This film felt very adult, in only the best sense of the word. The performances are all top-notch, and Andy Serkis, who played both Gollum and King Kong, undergoes yet another remarkable digital transformation to play Caesar, giving a digitally created character heart and making him utterly believable.
Seeing a film like this makes you realize what children the Michael Bay’s of the world really are, and what can happen when you leave the grown-ups in control.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” tells the story of how, eventually, talking apes will come to rule the earth, and is this really so much less bizarre than giant robots from outer space? The difference is that “Apes” is told with confidence and maturity and has faith in both its story and its audience. I was very impressed. Now, let’s have more just like it.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 for some frightening violence, scenes of cruelty and mild language.
Chris Jenness is a freelance graphic designer, artist and movie buff who lives in Nikiski.