While it doesn’t often get credit for it by the public, the Planet of the Apes franchise had had a massive influence on the way Hollywood works. Years before Star Wars was a gleam in George Lucas’ eye, the Planet of the Apes series managed to juggle four sequels and a merchandising empire that would be replicated time and again in the future. Even Tim Burton’s 2001 remake would influence Hollywood in that it was basically a reboot made before the term “reboot” had become a massive buzzword in the film industry. While the original Planet of the Apes is an undisputed classic, the best of the sequels was clearly 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, a surprisingly dark installment that shows the original rise of Apes and their conquest of their human oppressors. Released in the wake of the turbulent sixties and just one year after the Attica Prison Riot, that film was able to use the unrest of its time in order to paint a grim apocalyptic portrait that was perhaps a bit too much for the family audiences that had embraced the previous entries of the series. It’s that excellent but under-appreciated Apes movie that seems to have been the primary influence on the newest film to bear the “Planet of the Apes” brand, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Set in a near future in which Earth has launched their first manned mission to Mars, the film focuses on a chemist named Will Rodman (James Franco) who’s been developing a drug called ALZ 112. This drug seems to be restoring cognitive abilities to the chimpanzes they’ve been testing it on and these results give Rodman hope that he’s found a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, an ailment that his father, Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), suffers from. Promising as the results are, the project is shut down when one of the most advanced test chimps seems to go mad and rampage through the lab during a tour by prominent investors. That chimp would be killed along with the rest of the test subjects but she left behind a newborn son that Rodman secretly adopted and named Caesar. Caesar seems to have inherited his mother’s advanced intelligence and gets smarter and smarter over the course of three years. He learns sign language, solves relatively complex problems, and seems fully able to comprehend the world around him. Aside from the occasional trip into the outside world that he makes with Rodman and his girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto), Caesar is confined into a small house despite his advanced intelligence and emerging ambition. Though Rodman doesn’t realize it, Caesar is into going to be able to live like this for long and the obstacles in his way may well be torn down rather than allowed to remain in place.
So does Rise of the Planet of the Apes live up to the “Planet of the Apes” name? First and foremost, this blows the 2001 Tim Burton remake out of the water and after this you can easily forget that movie ever happened. As for the original series, well, that’s kind of hard to answer. The film does not really fit in with the continuity of the original series at all (which explained the ape’s rise as part of an elaborate time paradox) but it does still borrow element s from those movies just the same. As was the case in the original series, an advanced ape named Caesar was responsible for the ape revolution and certain elements of those films like the name “Cornelius” and the line “get your stinkin’ paws off of me you damn dirty ape” are also used. There is not, however, any real way that one could see this as a straightforward prequel to the events of the 1968 film. In fact I think this might have been better served if it had dropped the “Planet of the Apes” branding altogether and called itself something like “Simian Revolution” or something. Linking itself to that seminal series only draws some not overly flattering comparisons, and I don’t really know how valuable the name recognition ever was to begin with anyway.
The film generally lacks the political parallels that made the original Planet of the Apes such a classic. I suppose there are some very basic “don’t mess with mother nature” undertones, but they’re not overly sophisticated and rarely rise above the level of 50’s B-movies. The film could also perhaps be viewed as a PETA message about the internal “humanity” of animals. However, that message doesn’t exactly hold a lot of water given that the apes only become sympathetic once they are given a level of human-like intelligence that actual animals do not possess. Instead this works more as a character-based drama and focuses specifically on the relationship between Caesar and Rodman. This part holds up pretty well largely because James Franco does a pretty good job creating a likable character and because WETA does a simply amazing job bringing the Caesar character to life. The film’s effects are simply incredible, the chimps really look real and their motions are detailed and fluid. It’s unusual seeing effects work this good on a medium sized studio film like this rather than an uber-epic like Lord of the Rings or Avatar, but low and behold the work here is indeed Oscar worthy. The effects are also assisted by mocap actor Andy Serkis, who brings Caesar to life just as effectively as he brought King Kong to life in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake of that film.
There is an epic action sequence at the end of the film, and that’s effective, but the film is mostly action-free in its first half. This might disappoint some summer movie audiences but I think it’s one of the film’s strong points. Lesser movies would have found a way to shoehorn in action sequences into every act out of a belief that audiences can’t stand to sit down for two hours without seeing an explosion every ten minutes. Instead the focus is clearly on story, which is not to say that the story itself is flawless by any means. In fact, the film has a problem at its core: it needs to transition the Caesar character and his ape comrades from zoo animals to revolutionaries in a very short period of time and in order to do this it needs to make certain logical leaps that leave plot holes in their wake. For one thing, the way that the ALZ 112 drug works is not consistent throughout the film and seems to change whenever it suits the plot. The film also employs some kind of ridiculous side characters in order to up the oppression level that the apes experience including a zoo keeper who seems to go out of his way to be unlikable and a neighbor with some serious anger management problems. The film also has Caesar taking on a sign of intelligence that no drug could ever provide him, which is a little jarring.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not a summer blockbuster that overachieves to the level of Inception or The Matrix, but I do think that it’s up there with the District 9s and Iron Mans of the world. I also feel like it could be the set up for a sequel that could be really awesome (and it leaves this possibility open to almost anti-climactic effect). I don’t want to over-sell the movie or over-state its significance, but it is a lot stronger than the mediocre superhero movies we’ve been sitting through recently and if nothing else it’s worth seeing for just how real special effects can get and how well they can be integrated into films set in the real world.
***1/2 out of Four