I’ve never been much of a fan of prequels. The idea of exploring in depth a series of events which we’re already at least loosely familiar with has always seemed superfluous. Give me an original story, show me what happens next, take the story someplace new…
And then 20th Century Fox released X-Men: First Class, which for all its flaws remains a fantastic film and the best comic-book movie of the summer (with Captain America a very close second). It took characters and events whose detailed destinies were already known to us and made them feel fresh, alive, and interesting again. It succeeded so well in fact that I’d prefer to see further X-Men stories with those characters/actors than see a return to the ones who made up the original trilogy. But surely that was a fluke, a rare case of synergy between director, writers, and cast that would not happen again anytime soon. Especially from a studio like Fox.
And yet I’m happy to say I was wrong, again. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a prequel of sorts to the classic 1968 Charlton Heston original and gets right just about everything Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot got wrong. It’s smart, thrilling, and challenging entertainment that takes the familiar trope of man’s hubris paired with a story whose outcome is all but inevitable and manages to create an engaging, visually spectacular tale with a very strong human heart… that just happens to be beating beneath one incredibly hairy chest.
The film opens with a languid walk through the jungle by a few dozen chimpanzees before quickly becoming a frenetic and frightening rush for escape as trappers capture and crate several of the creatures. The chimps are sold to a research facility near San Francisco where scientists immediately begin experimenting on them with a new drug called ALZ-112. Will Rodman (James Franco) is lead researcher on the project in a quest to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, but while his boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), is in it for the paycheck Will has a far more personal motivation. His father (John Lithgow) is suffering in the advance stages of the disease. A break-though arrives with a chimp nicknamed Bright Eyes whose test results show an amazing increase in intelligence, but when she suddenly shows extreme aggression in a room full of potential investors the project is put on indefinite hold.
Broken by the setback, Will spirits away a newborn and raises him at home. (How exactly a high tech medical lab would miss the fact that one of their research chimps is 8 to 9 months pregnant is anyone’s guess.) Will’s father grows attached to the chimplet and names him Caesar, and they soon realize there’s a special intelligence behind the hairy little beast’s eyes. And he’s getting smarter. A fine female zoologist (Freida Pinto) joins the family as Will’s lady friend, and together they raise and teach the chimp to understand speech and sign language. But he’s not the only experiment in the house.
A few years later an incident occurs when Caesar’s jaws meet a neighbor’s fingers, and the animal is sent to stay at an animal shelter just south of the city. (Personally I wouldn’t entrust my right shoe to a facility run by Brian Cox and that Draco Malfoy prick (Tom Felton) let alone my family pet, but that’s me.) It’s there that this highly intelligent and somewhat domesticated animal comes face to face with mankind’s inhumanity and the animal kingdom’s inherent ferocity. It’s also where he discovers that he’s a born leader… with a purpose.
As this is a prequel most movie-goers will already have a general sense of where things go from there, so I see no need in offering more plot details. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s script makes a few missteps on its way to that inevitable end, but it works far more often than not in creating a worthwhile science fiction adventure. There are probably too many nods to the original film in the form of visual gags and lines of dialogue, but only one stands out as feeling a bit too forced. It doesn’t help that it’s immediately followed by what should be a fairly big, knock-you-back-in-your-seat moment.
The script’s biggest issue though is its failure to make the human characters the least bit compelling. To be fair, Franco’s zombified acting style doesn’t help either, but the human story here is far less interesting than Caesar’s. Will’s ethical dilemma over the research and his misuse of the drug never feels like that much of a struggle, we never really see a strong relationship and therefore loss between him and his sick father, and too many of characters seem to exist solely as triggers for specific action points with no real depth of their own. It wouldn’t be a real problem if they were less of the story, but the film’s first hour features a hefty amount of those damn, dirty humans, and every second of it makes you yearn for the apes to hurry up and rise already.
Because when Caesar is onscreen none of that really matters. The character is a combination of many things, most notably Andy Serkis’ nuanced and living motion-captured performance and some incredibly detailed CGI. The one thing that worked in Burton’s reboot was the practical ape effects, and I feared this film’s CGI equivalent would pale in comparison, but I needn’t have worried. Some of their faster motions feel a bit too smooth, but more often than not they impress in their texture, depth, and detail. The orangutang (mo-cap’d by Karin Konoval) is especially amazing and could easily pass for the real thing. And it’s not simply the visual effects either, as a big reason these apes feel alive is in the motions of Serkis, Konoval, and others. As impressive as the effects are the CGI just adds the skin to already strong and emotive performances.
Director Rupert Wyatt salts the film’s first two acts with brief flashes of action and danger, but he lets the monkeys loose in the kitchen for the final third as the apes rise through San Francisco and beyond. They storm through buildings, spill through traffic, and stare menacingly down from rooftops at puny humans. The entire set piece is a spectacular and exhilarating romp filled with dramatic images that will have you cheering against your own species, and the stretch along the Golden Gate Bridge is especially kick-ass both visually and action-wise.
The film takes its time setting up Caesar’s character arc and transformation from research animal to Spartacus-inspired revolutionary, and the payoff makes it worth the wait. You want him to succeed in his struggle even if it means mankind’s downfall because it’s earned on both sides of that coin. We grow with Caesar in awareness and in his desire to do right by his kind, and his journey becomes one of freedom and independence no different than than that of countless human slaves and warriors throughout cinematic history.
Rise Of the Planet of the Apes is a clunky title, but it’s a brave new film. It’s a story of courage and hope that criticizes mankind while simultaneously celebrating what makes us human. An ideal cut would minimize the human element and increase the screen-time given to the ape interactions, but what’s here works as a brilliant introduction to this new world’s creation. The fact that it can be both thought provoking and exciting is an unexpected gift in any film, let alone a summer one. So do yourself a favor and go see it in theaters. It will please your ape overlords very much.
The Upside: Caesar is an engaging, sympathetic, and fascinating lead, and Andy Serkis does fantastic work in the role; some stellar special effects; San Francisco assault and subsequent Golden Gate Bridge standoff are visually dramatic and exciting; smart science fiction is a big screen rarity; killer ending
The Downside: Human characters lack the charisma of their hairy co-stars; dialogue features more than a few cheesy lines; lab fails to recognize research chimp is pregnant; plays a bit loose with Bay Area geography; Brian Cox and Freida Pinto are wasted in these roles; title is still poorly worded
On the Side: Stick around for a couple minutes into the end credits for a bonus scene that helps answer a question some folks who have yet to see the film are already asking.