Franklin J. Schaffner’s original Planet of the Apes is more highly regarded now than it was back in 1968. And even though the special effects and the make-up and the costuming may pale in comparison to what is available today, the Apes idea has endured and even grown in prominence. That’s why when the prequel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, was announced it was met by fans with cautious optimism. Camps were divided. Was this just another Hollywood money grab or an opportunity to do something unique within the long used and abused sub-genre?
The naysayers and pessimists turned out to be wrong. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most literate science-fiction action films in some time. It’s a rare prequel that fits in perfectly in front of the 43-year-old original that inspired it.
In Rise, James Franco plays brilliant scientist Will Rodman, who’s searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s. He works for a well-funded corporation that values his work more for how it can pad profits than for how it can better society. Hints of evil corporate tinkering run underneath the story as Will’s work is driven by Wall Street concerns. But such stereotypical content, ever-present and overplayed in the films of James Cameron, for example, is treated more subtly here.
Rodman’s chief motivations are deeply personal. His father, Charles (John Lithgow), was once a talented music teacher but now suffers from crippling Alzheimer’s. When Will’s presentation to the corporate board of directors goes horribly wrong, his work is shelved. But Will’s mission isn’t complete. And he decides to continue with human trials of his miracle drug, starting with Charles. And that’s where the seeds of chaos are sown.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes intelligently tells us how the seemingly upside-down world led by apes could have come about. Winking at the 1968 original, we get touches here and there that pay homage to the Charlton Heston film. And somehow, by playing everything straight and somber, these references don’t seem forced or too cute. Rise is a true prequel that understands the best science-fiction cinema doesn’t rest on the effects but on the ideas and characters.
And the characters are, for the most part, well-crafted. Certainly the cast couldn’t have been much better. Franco isn’t required to be an action hero. His Will Rodman is a thinking man whose ambition is dangerous, more dangerous than anything the world may ever have seen. Around him is a cast of standouts. Lithgow chews on a role that really takes advantage of his ability to play a damaged soul. Getting the worst of things is Harry Potter’s Tom Felton, who plays a necessary but utterly one-dimensional character who antagonizes Caesar, the ape that will play a key role in the rise of a new world.
And Caesar, the film’s most important character, is almost entirely generated by computer. Using the finest motion capture technology available, the WETA team, who were responsible for fine work on the Lord of the Rings trilogy and District 9, created one very smart ape. The story follows Caesar’s development from his traumatic birth to his evolution into something between ape and human. Once he becomes older, he’s played by Andy Serkis, who gave life and motion to Gollum in Rings and did fine work portraying another famous big ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong.
Serkis’ work is once-again award-worthy. Not only does Caesar look real, but he takes on characteristics and mannerisms that are a unique blend of ape and human in the various stages of development. The transformation is uncanny. It makes you wonder what David Cronenberg would have done with Jeff Goldblum had these techniques been available when he made The Fly. The difference is that the personification in Rise is from ape to something approximating human, or as we learn in the film, the progression may be to some being that is greater than human.
Intriguing questions are introduced and addressed within the action package that frames Rise of the Planet of the Apes. There’s more thinking and less fighting, making it a special late-summer entry. Even some of the provocative ideas themselves carry their own special effects. The film is an answer to all the apologists that slammed critics for over-thinking movies like the Transformers three-quel that’s dominated the season thus far. But only if audiences come out and support Rise’s kind of intelligent science fiction, will we see more of it. Because like the shadowy corporate players that helped usher in the ape nightmare back in 1968, Hollywood responds to the bottom line.