Though some of the production values of the original 1968 Planet of the Apes may look dated today, it nevertheless remains one of the most fascinating works of science fiction ever embedded on film. Released during the zenith of the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam and the Cold War, the film was a thinly veiled allegory on racial discrimination, nuclear war and the ideology of creationism. It told the story of an astronaut named Taylor (Charlton Heston) who crash lands on an uncharted planet where apes are the dominant species and humans are primitive mutes. Following the enormous critical and commercial success of the film, studio 20th Century Fox immediately released four sequels within the next five years, but none of them even remotely approached the quality of the original.
With Tim Burton’s horrendous remake in 2001 only tarnishing the legacy of the series, I’ll admit that I didn’t have much hope for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. For one, I don’t think anyone was clamoring for a Planet of the Apes prequel. The trailers weren’t very interesting either and the casting of James Franco as a scientist did nothing to undo my skepticism. But then Rise of the Planet of the Apes did something that no other movie this summer has done. It surprised me! Trust me, after getting slapped in the face with one disappointing blockbuster after another (I’m looking at you Cowboys & Aliens, The Hangover Part 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides), it feels bloody fantastic to watch a movie you previously had no expectations for sneak up on you.
This is a movie that takes its time by engaging you with warm character development, strong storytelling and thorough attention-to-detail, and then rewards your patience by combining these essential elements with dazzling visual effects for one of the most emotionally satisfying experiences of the summer. The first thing that director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver do right is that they approach Rise as a reboot rather than a prequel. Yes, there are a few clever nods to the original including the name of the lead chimp (Caesar), but overall, this is a brand new start like Batman Begins and Casino Royale. With the chains off, they’re free to do tackle the story anyway they like. The second right decision was to make Caesar the lead instead of the human characters. James Franco may be the big star of the movie but this is primarily Caesar’s story and how he grows from a naïve infant chimp to a bitter and eventually powerful ape.
Franco plays Dr. Will Rodman, a well-meaning scientist looking for the cure for Alzheimer’s disease – something has become a personal agenda for him after his father (played wonderfully by the brilliant John Lithgow) is diagnosed with the disease. Apparently having not watched Deep Blue Sea, Rodman and his team test their latest brain-cell rejuvenating serum on a chimpanzee that ends up becoming super smart. However, after a tragedy at the lab forces the company to shut down its research, Rodman adopts the only remaining chimp from the experiment, an infant his father names Caesar, and educates him the way only a parent would. As the years go by, Caesar’s intelligence only doubles and slowly he begins to question the nature of his place in the human world. Worse, he witnesses his kind enslaved in cages at zoos and labs and starts to rebel against his human family.
What’s amazing about this is that screenwriters Jaffa and Silver tell Caesar’s story and make audiences empathize with him only with his body movements and reactions. It’s also credit to Andy Serkis’ supreme talents that you actually believe that this CGI creation is a real animal. When it comes to performance-capture work, Serkis, who also brought Gollum and King Kong to life, has no peer. And this is perhaps his greatest work – yes, even surpassing Gollum. His Caesar may arguably be the greatest new character of the summer. Caesar may be an ape and arguably, the film’s primary antagonist but as the film progresses, I began to sympathize with him more than any of the human characters. By the time the film ended, don’t be surprised to find yourself rooting against the humans.
On the human character front, James Franco isn’t bad as Rodman. While 127 Hours proved that Franco is a richly talented, there isn’t enough for him to do here to stretch his ability. More successful is veteran actor John Lithgow who wonderfully portrays the anger, confusion, frustration and sadness of an Alzheimer’s patient. Frieda Pinto while cute, barely registers as she doesn’t have much to do. As for the actual ‘Rise’… it’s worth it. Worth every single penny! It’s action-packed, spectacularly staged and thrilling. Plus it’s carried out in a very believable manner.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most satisfying experiences I’ve had this summer. With a brilliant performance from Andy Serkis, a very strong screenplay that promotes character development over mindless action, and the commanding direction of Rupert Wyatt, this is one reboot I highly recommend investing it. You don’t need to have seen a single movie in the Planet of the Apes franchise to come out enjoying this one.