Rise of the Apes hit theatres recently, looking to simultaneously reboot the series and provide a prequel. How did it fair against its previous installments in the franchise?
There are certain buzzwords that trouble me when I hear them in regards to upcoming movies; remake, sequel, Nicolas Cage. Any and every combination of these can have me running for the nearest bomb shelter. Lately, the term that vexes me the most is ‘origin story.’ Whenever I’m reading an article online or in an entertainment magazine, nothing seems to bother me more than hearing that term describe some project in development. I guess that the notion of the origin story appeals to me, in the way that I guess it would appeal to any film aficionado; finding out the David Copperfield back-story of a beloved character. By allowing viewers and fans to effectively turn back the page - days, weeks, even years before we were first introduced to them.
And origin stories can be cool, very cool in fact, when they are done well and very bad when they are not. Take the J.J. Abrams-helmed Star Trek, Batman Begins, or even this year’s X-Men: First Class for an example of the former. For a prime example of the latter, one doesn’t need look any further than a galaxy far, far away.
Origins should not be confused with prequels, though. Prequels, by definition are simply the preceding chapter in a familiar story but they do not necessarily have to be origin stories. Now I’m going to delve into a bit of advanced cinematic theory for a second. I realize that this may be more esoteric than your typical movie review, but I have nothing but the utmost faith in my readers’ intelligence. So to be fair, those of you that just want to get to the meat and potatoes of the review, please feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph. For the rest of you, here we go and thanks for sticking around.
Remember back in geometry class, when your teacher said that all rectangles are squares but not all squares are rectangles. Well it’s the same with origin films and prequels. All origins are in essence, prequels but prequels are not necessarily origin stories. Take Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom…please. But seriously, Temple of Doom is by definition, a prequel to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The timestamp at the beginning of Temple of Doom places the events of that film a year before Raiders. Now what does that have to do with the price of tea in China, you may ask? That while, Temple of Doom technically ‘takes place’ before Raiders, the film itself doesn’t really inform viewers at all about Indy’s back-story or how he came to be the dashing grave-robbing (you know it’s true) archeologist, that we all came to know and love.
That particular chapter was reserved for the opening flashback scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, which was the third film and not an origin story. While Phantom Menace is both an origin story and prequel at the same time because it delivers both.
Now, in defense of origin films, I will say that it does give audiences the opportunity to revisit familiar territory without being forced to retread the footsteps of the original cinematic version. I just feel that this type of reverse engineering just about always tends to be the Achilles’ heel of most contemporary remakes (Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes) or relaunches (Superman Returns), where audiences cannot help but compare the remake/relaunch to the original (and often superior) film. Thus, I am quite pleased to share that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not suffer from that handicap in the least. Planet of the Apes was vastly better than I expected it to be, yet everything I hoped for at the same time.
First of all, I have to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not the mindless action packed romp that the trailers would have you believe. I cannot impress upon you enough how much of a good thing that is. Everything about it is thought out and well executed right down to their choices of ape. As many of you have seen in the trailers, there’s obviously some simian melee to be had for sure and I found that even during those moments, I could distinguish the apes that had been developed as characters from the ones that were just along for the ride. Something that I cannot say at all for battle scenes in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, where I felt like I was watching a pile of silverware getting thrown at the screen for two and half hours. And neither is Planet of the Apes a bullet hail, sci-fi action flick either, like Aliens or Total Recall, which are both excellent sci-fi films but lean far more on the action than the science.
Planet of the Apes is definitely a sci-fi thriller and a cautionary tale at the same time. I happen to love sci-fi cautionary tales; stories where mankind’s (or should I say science’s) thirst for knowledge usually ends disastrously for all involved; wherein the blind pursuit of that quest, our reach exceeds our grasp either proving how limited our understanding truly is and how precarious our position at the top of the food chain really can be. Authors Mary Shelley (Frankenstein) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) explored these themes over a hundred years ago in literature, and thankfully, those themes endure on the silver screen to this day. Planet of the Apes does a superb job of delivering a taut, patiently paced thriller that will fit not only within the Apes canon, but within the genre as well. That’s something that I wished the Will Smith version of I Am Legend (one of my absolute favorite books) had strived for, whereas the book was more of a potboiler, the film was essentially a video game filled with hollow CGI zombie vamps.
The ensemble cast of Planet of the Apes, all deliver fine performances. James Franco (127 Hours) is more capable in the role of a geneticist than you might initially think. More so than Jessica Alba (Fantastic Four), Natalie Portman (Thor) or my all-time favorite, Denise Richards (The World is Not Enough) as a nuclear physicist named Dr. Christmas Jones. Remember the line, “I thought Christmas only came once a year?” I still can’t stop laughing. Thankfully, Franco’s character isn’t burdened with having to deliver pages of tongue-twisting techno-babble. I thought this served the film very well because it never attempts to talk over the viewers heads, nor does it offer too much in the way of hard science to ever really contest the feasibility of it all. Franco’s performance as devoted son to John Lithgow (Showtime’s Dexter), who is suffering from severe Alzheimer’s and surrogate father to an orphaned chimp, Caesar, is where his skills shine in a very endearing and believable way. Never does Franco’s character feel motivated by any cold scientific agenda - quite the opposite in fact; you feel that he really just wants to create a drug to help his dad. And if the plausibility of a miracle drug having unexpected side effects seems too much to swallow, we should be reminded that drugs like Viagra and Rogaine both started out as heart medications.
Now I feel that I would be remiss if I did not devote at least one full paragraph to the absolutely captivating performance of Andy Serkis (The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong) who portrays the aptly named chimpanzee, Caesar or the Ape That Would Be King. Most moviegoers (myself included) probably wouldn’t recognize Andy Serkis if he was standing right in front of them. But his performances as Gollum and King Kong have set quite an impressive bar in the world of motion and performance capture. A technology that had many of us worried, when we saw a floppy eared minstrel named Jar-Jar Binks step-and-fetch his way onto the big screen a dozen years ago. Serkis has proven himself to be the reigning king of mo-cap with this performance. Even when the seams of the CGI in this film peek through, his role as Caesar still keeps you firmly entrenched in the story. And Caesar’s evolution from charming novelty pet to confident rebel leader is something to behold and believable in every way. I wanted to petition the Academy Awards to create a new category for digital performers.
As the summer movie season draws to a close, I’ve noticed that the films that the studios have far less faith in tend to get relegated to an August release. Now one might think that this would mean that said films would not be as good. However, I have seen time and time again that they tend to be some of my favorite films of the season. It doesn’t go for the cheap tricks of its summer brethren with loud explosive set pieces or cute comic relief. Nor does it fall prey to giving audiences the easy out of a happy ending. The escalation of the violence and action feels very natural and not contrived in the least. So whether you’re a fan of sci-fi films or just well-crafted stories, the Rise of the Planet of the Apes will be a thoroughly enjoyable ride. Hail Caesar.