Rise of the Planet of the Apes, as redundantly wordy as that title may be, is the most creatively (and hopefully, critically and commercially) successful reboot of a flagging franchise since James Bond went bad, bold ‘n’ blond in 2006’s Casino Royale. In similar fashion, the filmmakers have integrated their updated take into the established mythos, simultaneously reviving the property’s viability in a contemporary culture while maintaining the essence of the iconic material, preserving the unique attributes that have sustained its enduring popularity for so many decades. This movie, easily one of the year’s best, proves that a truly timeless story can be adapted to suit the fickle whims of changing public tastes without losing its core qualities, keeping its thematic universality and metaphorical messages intact. At first I was skeptical when I heard about this latest revival of the beloved Apes, fearing it was just another cynical, aesthetically bankrupt attempt to milk an aging cash cow, but I’m here to confirm that there’s more than just monkey business afoot here.
This is both a prequel to the 1968 sci-fi classic starring Charleton Heston (with some very sly reprisals of its signature quotes as well as nods to the original cast), and a remake of sorts of the fourth entry in the original series (and for my money, the best of the sequels), 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, starring Roddy McDowell as simian revolutionary/visionary Caesar. In both versions, Caesar leads a revolt of his fellow chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans against their human oppressors, only in the ’72 film the apes had been widely domesticated as “pets,” forced into servitude after a mysterious epidemic wiped out all cats and dogs on Earth. I never really bought that explanation for the integration of apes into human culture, which proved to be a combustible combination, but those films were so inventive and entertaining that I just went along for the ride and swallowed the various plot contrivances.
This time, Caesar is the accidental byproduct of a radical new treatment aimed at curing Alzheimer’s, though because it induces the brain to basically repair itself, the therapeutic and medical possibilities are considered endless. Naturally the callous researchers sacrifice and subject our simian brethren to the various experiments and inevitably, Nature hits back with a vengeance, both on a cellular and a practical level, since Caesar grows both more independent and more intelligent as he matures, emboldened by the drug’s benefits even as its proves to be a fatal sucker punch for humans. As his awareness of mankind’s cruelty to lesser species evolves, so does Caesar’s resolve to organize a violent rebellion, despite the affection he still holds for the scientist who rescued and raised him, Will, well played by James Franco. It was Will who developed the serum hoping to save his own ailing father (John Lithgow), and this provides the initial dramatic impetus for the story, which is as emotionally resonant as it is scientifically sound, the genuine pathos evoked by the interactions between the principals making it all seem that much more plausible. Andy Serkis does another incredible job of providing the motion-capture expressions for the groundbreaking CGI effects (though I thought he was equally effective as Peter Jackson’s triumphant King Kong back in ’05), infusing what could be a computerized cartoon with some true heart and soul, which is the critical key to the whole concept’s appeal: effectively and empathetically viewing the world from an animal’s perspective. In fact, this movie is to animal lovers what Thelma and Louise was to feminists: an often disturbing but ultimately satisfying cinematic catharsis. If you love watching animals wreak havoc and revenge against their cold-hearted captors, this is the movie for you.
Rise ends rather abruptly though, leaving you wanting more, since this only chronicles the very beginnings of the uprising. I’d also like to see Pierre Boulle’s novel adapted more faithfully in the next installment, since in his literary vision the apes live in a much more technologically advanced society. There is a new and satisfying reason given for mankind’s self destruction in this version, which is much more timely in our post-Cold War society, dealing directly with the more insidious threats of viruses, diseases and other unseen enemies than can destroy us from within. Whether it’s mutual nuclear annihilation or germ warfare, the results remain the same, paving the way for the Apes to assume – regain – ultimate control of the planet.
Regarding Tim Burton’s sadly botched “re-imagining” of the story from 2001, there’s nothing new to say about it now, since effectively, it no longer matters much in the official canon, though I do give Burton props for his creative visualization of the simian civilization. It was just too stubbornly if bravely revisionist for its own sake, alienating hardcore fans without making any new ones. Rise marks a fresh new beginning, no more monkeying around, that works equally well as both homage and makeover. Just as the first generation of Apes was a byproduct of its own tumultuous era, I look forward to an all-new series reflecting the dirty politics and complex culture of the 21st century, as long as the sequels are as carefully conceived and crafted as this kick-ass kick-starter. Long live the Apes!
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is now playing at the Alameda, Grand Lake in Oakland, New Rheem in Moraga, Solano Drive-In in Concord, and other Bay Area Theaters. The San Francisco/Marin County setting of the film will be particulary satisfying – and unsettling? – for locals.
Will “the Thrill” Viharo is a pulp fiction author and B Movie impresario.