Dystopias and futures grim
Are but a writer’s dismal whim.
No wasteland stark
Or desert dark
Or dictatorial monarch,
No virus spread
Or walking dead
Or culture built upon bloodshed,
Of status quo
Could happen to the world we know.
‘Twill be too late when mankind learns
To heed dystopians’ concerns.
MPAA rating: PG-13
I’ve been skipping the recent Planet of the Apes reboot series because I considered them just another example of Hollywood’s idea-starved habit of milking past franchises. Although I was surprised at how positive the critical reactions were, that’s why it took me so long to finally explore this reboot, and now that I’ve seen it, I’m surprised again by how good it really is. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a sterling example of a reboot done right, taking the basic ingredients of a prior film and building on them in new and unexpected ways.
Of all the earlier Planet of the Apes installments, this film most resembles the fourth one, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which happens to be where the original film series took a nosedive on quality and believability, even more so than in the second film. Whereas the Caesar in Conquest (played by Roddy McDowall) was the product of a time leap from the ape future seen in the original Planet of the Apes, the Caesar in Rise (played by Andy Serkis via ever-improving motion capture) is born from a captured chimpanzee being used for experimental drug tests. When an incident causes his mother and the other test cases to be killed, baby Caesar is taken in by Will Rodman (James Franco), the head of the project, and his father (John Lithgow), whose Alzheimer’s disease spurs Will to keep working on his cure. Although raised by humans, the unusually intelligent Caesar eventually learns of his origin and the fate of others of his kind and sparks a simian revolt.
As the first in the series to use CGI for an authentic appearance for the apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a huge improvement over the originals on a visual level alone. The apes look astoundingly real, even if there’s still that slight CGI-ness that lets me tell they’re not, and the motion capture allows for entirely credible movements, as well as emotive facial expressions in the case of Caesar. Franco and Lithgow also deliver solid human support that adds heart to a tale of science run amok, while Daniel Oyelowo plays the typical corporate corner-cutter who’s the “real” villain. The film’s “rise” to its action climax is not only a great thrill but one that also shows early on Caesar’s moral reluctance to take any human lives.
Although Rise is clearly rewriting the history of the original Planet of the Apes series, there are plenty of callbacks to please those like my VC who are wary of any change to a cherished franchise. Iconic lines are recycled, like “It’s a madhouse” and “Take your stinking paw off me, you d*mn dirty ape.” Easter eggs are dropped, like Caesar’s mother being nicknamed Bright Eyes, as Charlton Heston’s character was in the first film, and Heston himself even has a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo. There’s an added reason to the references too, particularly in how Caesar is imprisoned in a cruel ape cagehouse, implicitly suggesting that, as bad as Heston was treated, the apes were treated that way first.
I also liked the subtlety of how Caesar’s arc is analogous to Moses in the Bible. Like Moses, Caesar was rescued when the rest of his “people” were killed; he was raised by the “enslavers” until an act of violent rebellion gets him in trouble; and after a time of exile, he leads his “people” to freedom. It’s a nice subtext that allows the story to be enjoyed as both a solid sci-fi movie and a semi-allegorical narrative.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes does so much right that it makes me wonder why it’s so hard for other reboots to succeed. Certainly, it has respect for the source material but also the nerve to tell its own story, including a parting hint as to how mankind’s decline will play out. It’s a very promising start for a series that, from what I understand, will only get better.
Best line: (Jacobs, Will’s boss) “I swear, you know everything about the human brain except the way it works.”
© 2017 S.G. Liput
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