Ten years after director Tim Burton’s (Alice in Wonderland) highly anticipated remake, Planet of the Apes, a creative and commercial disaster based on the 1968 Twentieth Century Fox film with Charlton Heston which was itself based on a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle (Monkey Planet), Fox returns with the big budget Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The tagline is: evolution becomes revolution.
Well, not exactly. This version applies a humanistic overlay to the series, and it is not a remake of the original movie; it is a reset that’s a story about a pet. Though it’s also laced with bad lines, stock villains and a Jurassic Park-like warning against tampering with nature, an archaic argument which could be used against paper, birth control and all types of sex, Apes is good science fiction.
Director Rupert Wyatt begins with eerily isolated drumbeats and a sense of desolation swooping into treetops and taking us to a place where humans entrap apes for the sake of science. That James Franco’s (Milk, 127 Hours) ambitious genetics company scientist, Will, may have a legitimate personal motivation for studying apes and chimpanzees, which have long been used to advance human progress, heightens the anticipation. Will’s father, portrayed by John Lithgow in an excellent performance, is not himself, and this endears us to Will’s cause. Will makes ethically lousy choices and the script limits the character, the company and, most painfully, the CEO (David Oyelowo) to one-note parts and plot points. When Will brings a genetically enhanced newborn chimp back in a box, his homebound father, who tries to play piano between nurse visits, takes a liking to the exceptionally expressive monkey. The outcast scientist, his incapacitated father, and a chimp named Caesar form a strange sort of family. Will becomes obsessive about his theories and experiments, his father regresses, and Caesar becomes more intelligent.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes goes on, with the implausibly evil company’s experiments halted after something goes wrong, and Caesar confined to his own playroom, gazing out the window like Quasimodo in the bell tower, longing to play like other youths and be part of the world. Years pass, and after an innocent act turns into an encounter with a hostile neighbor, Will gets a girlfriend (Freida Pinto), Caesar (played as an adult by Andy Serkis in the most involving performance) grows up, and the family goes for picnics in the park. This is where collared Caesar, who communicates through sign language, sees a dog on a leash and wonders whether he’s a pet, too. At its best, the movie, like the original film, asks what it means to be primitive or civilized and challenges how we treat those we value. Aside from an occasional deja vu of the computer generated monkeys from Jumanji, the visual work is incredible. So is Patrick Doyle’s pitch perfect score.
As Caesar meets others like him, the plot is gripping and the film takes off in new directions. With soulful eyes, and a mind like a human, he learns about human cruelty and what it means to be hated by others, including by his own kind, for being better than others in ability, and, while these are not dominant themes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is loaded with interesting scenes with subtexts about trust, home, and being a loner. When all hell breaks loose, and you know it will, it has something to say about how one must think to survive, camaraderie in warfare, and breaking free from oppression, with renunciation, not appeasement or compromise, crucial to the cause. Despite its flaws, such as the evil CEO dragging the third act down, the climactic confrontation is thoroughly exciting. Caesar is the main character and he does not disappoint. Classic Planet of the Apes fans like me will find peppered winks and references that do not detract from Caesar’s quest to make the world his home, even if he has to take down San Francisco. True to its B-grade sci-fi movie roots, Fox’s reboot erases the memory of the 2001 version (which isn’t memorable anyway) and gets the revolution rolling.
Dec. 12, 2011 update: One may appreciate Rise of the Planet of the Apes more on DVD, with Patrick Doyle’s triumphal score, and though the extras are skimpy (the Blu-Ray edition contains more), two deleted scenes and two short behind-the-scenes features are good bits. Both of the cut scenes may give a hint to future sequels’ character and plot developments, nothing those who’ve seen the film probably hadn’t already figured out, and I recommend watching the features first for franchise fans and those who have previously watched the movie because the extras contain interesting tips and disclosures of references to the original Apes pictures. For viewers, including Netflix subscribers, who have not yet seen this fine movie, start with the movie, a visually arresting story with the characters and action to match.