Rise of the Planet of the Apes,
directed by Rupert Wyatt
(20th Century Fox, 2011)

It's difficult to explain the importance of The Planet of the Apes to GenXers and Baby Boomers, to anyone who isn't actually a GenXer/Baby boomer. The 1968 movie starring Charlton Heston spawned four sequels, a large number of books and comic books, and a Saturday morning TV show that I watched religiously while stretched out on a bed that had a Planet of the Apes sleeping bag on it. The first comic book that I drew was based on the concept of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes, meeting up with the Cornelius and Dr. Zaius from The Planet of the Apes (in my opinion, a very high-concept storyline). It was 1978, 10 years removed from the original film, yet its popularity was still going strong. It was one impressive flick.

Pierre Boulle, author of The Bridge Over the River Quai, wrote a book that served as an outlet for his feelings of disenchantment and skepticism of religion, government and the modern world in general. It was called La Plante de Singes, which was eventually adapted into the highly successful movie by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. Its antiestablishment themes and dystopian views were in perfect sync with its audience's mood. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (one of the better sequels), is a fantastic film that does justice to the original series, which truly set the standard for sci-fi movies to come.

While RotPotA can't beat its predecessor for big twists and iconic conclusions (because they've already been done), and it certainly can't rely on the story itself for inventiveness when the story is already well known by the grandchildren of the people who originally saw it at the drive-in, the task of reinvention is not entirely impossible. We know that the apes will break their chains and eventually conquer the world. The only hook left is the one of making the audience care enough about what's happening so that all the known plot points are seen through a new prism. The method through which this is achieved is simple but effective: telling the story from Caesar's point of view.

It is through Caesar's emotional development that the movie finds its freshest point of connection between viewer and story. Brilliant characterization is what puts this remake on its own very firm footing, if not nearly the same footing as the original. Both films have sympathetic characters, human and ape alike, which are the heart of the story. In other words, it's the story's essential humanity that makes it so good. It's what makes RotPotA as good as it is.

Part of the movie's new look is naturally going to encompass the heavy use of CGI effects, which is either going to save a movie or doom it, depending on how it's used. The idea of making the apes seem much realer than the actors-in-a-monkey suit variety from 1968 is a natural plus, but had the movie relied solely upon special effects to make its point, the film would never have been more than a low-level b-flick that would not have amounted to much more than warmed up leftovers from yesterday.

But director Rupert Wyatt has crafted a carefully thought-out film that uses CGI as an assist, not a crutch. As with the original, the special effects are secondary to the story; as with the original, the story engages the intelligence of the viewer without insulting it.

James Franco, who thankfully does not phone in his performance, is a genetic researcher trying to beat the clock in finding a cure for Alzheimer's, from which his father (John Lithgow, in a scene-stealing supporting role) is suffering. After an experiment goes horribly awry, the good-hearted doc takes home an orphaned baby chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis, a.k.a. Gollum in The Lord of the Rings). Unknown to him, the infant was exposed to the mind-enhancing drug. Franco quickly discovers that the drug not only works, it also has side benefits. But finding a place for an exceptional ape isn't easy. Although Caesar loves his human family, he's too enhanced not to know what the rest of humanity is really like, or to remain unaware for long about what his origin is and how he fits in.

This is another reason that the story works so well: by remaining grounded within the framework of family units, or perhaps it's the sympathy aroused by the plight of the apes as test subjects in the movies -- exploitation of the innocent and defenseless is a ready-made heartstring-tugger -- but either way, RotPotA starts out on a strong note and stays there until the very end. While there are cliches, the special effects are as amazing as they are seamless, the actors are invested in their roles and the resolution, even though it's seen from a country mile away, makes sense. Wyatt, working with screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, plants enough surprises to keep it fresh and interesting.

The resolution provides ample opportunity for a sequel; hopefully, some will have the quality of the sequels of the originals. As for my artistic endeavors, I'm wondering how to work in Gorilla Grodd and The Librarian from Terry Pratchett's Discworld to my basic concept. Now that would truly be an awesome comic.

review by
Mary Harvey

1 October 2011

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