By Eric Plaag
Somewhere among my collection of old 45s, I still have the Power Records disk that was included with my copy of the comic version of Beneath the Planet of the Apes. The comic book is long since gone to who knows where, but putting the 45 on once in a while reminds me of how consumed I was with these movies in 1974. I watched them anytime I could as part of weekend television movie matinees, and I was convinced that Caesar—the chimp who leads his fellow Hominidae in their revolution against their human captors—was one of the coolest characters of all time.
Then the remake of Planet of the Apes with Marky Mark happened in 2001, and after sitting through that dreck, I was convinced that its utter stupidity and grandiose pretentions had only succeeded in smothering the franchise in its sleep.
Fortunately, I was wrong.
This is not to suggest that the recent Rise of the Planet of the Apes (a very loose remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the sequel in which Caesar starts the revolution) is a perfect film. It isn’t. But in the hands of director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), this successful reboot of the franchise leans heavily on what made the originals so compelling—nearly constant action mingled with some sophisticated analysis of the presumptuousness of human science and the undercurrent of human exceptionalism that drives our society.
Being on Caesar’s side doesn’t take much of a stretch. The film opens with the capture of Casear’s mother in the jungle, who is immediately transported to a lab and injected with multiple test doses of a genetically engineered retrovirus intended to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s by not only repairing damaged brain cells but generating new ones. When she goes berserk and destroys the lab in an effort to protect her as yet undiscovered infant, authorities shut the program down and destroy the remaining chimps. The mastermind of the retrovirus, Will Rodman (James Franco), refuses to destroy baby Caesar, however, recognizing that the retrovirus has been passed genetically to the infant, as suggested by his glowing green eyes. Instead, he takes Caesar home, to raise him secretly in the presence of Will’s father (John Lithgow), who is himself dying from Alzheimer’s.
When Caesar inevitably outgrows San Francisco’s suburban world (see Project Nim for the real-world analog of this process), Will confides his secret in a primatologist, Caroline (Freida Pinto), who suggests that Caesar needs more time in the outdoors. In this case, that means the vast Muir Woods, a complex of redwoods across the Golden Gate Bridge. As Caesar cavorts in the trees and Will and Caroline do some cavorting of their own on the pine needles below, Caesar soon recognizes and resents his status as human pet. Shaped by the retrovirus’s amplification of intelligence in its subjects, Caesar gradually outgrows even Will, and an unfortunate encounter with one of Will’s neighbors lands Caesar in the veterinary equivalent of the hoosegow, with a warden (Brian Cox) and a handler (Tom Felton) playing Roy Bean and Nurse Ratched, respectively, to the simian inmates.
It is here, really, that the film exhibits its best work, illustrating the risks and the organic genesis of most revolutions as well as the particular kinds of skill and strategy that a truly effective leader must possess. The scenes involving Caesar’s abuse and his rise to power also hint at the curious and judicious mix of muscle and restraint that any leader must employ if he or she hopes to survive long. While the inevitable and therefore the somewhat predictable eventually occurs (yes, gorillas and orangutans and chimpanzees all over the city going nuts), the clever turn here is the acknowledgment that the other half of any successful revolution is the critical role of timing and serendipity. Caesar cannot know, for example, that something terrible has happened at the lab as a results of its arrogant scientists’ efforts to create (and profit wildly from) a new, more powerful version of the retrovirus, and yet it is those events that will enable the (unseen) completion of Caesar’s rise to power over the world. The handling of these developing consequences by the filmmakers results in one of the most fascinating and horror-inducing end title sequences I have ever seen in my many years of watching movies.
Unlike the films from the 1970s, Rise of the Planet of the Apes relies heavily on CGI applied to actors in body gear with position-tracking dots on their faces (Andy Serkis, who is best known for his “portrayal” of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, “plays” Caesar, for example), rather than on actors (such as Roddy McDowall) wearing lots of latex and makeup, and some of it, frankly, is overdone. The results aren’t terrible, though, and they enable a final battle on the Golden Gate Bridge that is far more exciting than the one at the end of Conquest. That said, fans of the old series of films are hereby duly warned that the story changes are significant. Gone is the link between Caesar and his parents Cornelius and Zira, although there is a nifty set of ongoing references to the simultaneous voyage of the Icarus and the loss of contact with its crew. Gone, too, is the compelling intervention of Lisa (Caesar’s love interest) at the end of Conquest, as well as Caesar’s awesome speechifying from the original. All that said, though, Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes for some great end-of-summer entertainment that may succeed in rebooting a series desperately in need of rediscovery. And while you’re at it, check out the original five films (all available on DVD), which offer a continuity to this universe that might make the rest of this rebooted series more accessible and provocative in the long run.
Theaters, 3 out of 5 stars