Reboots are predicated upon the idea that franchises have natural lifespans. The cycle begins with a single luminous idea that is transformed into a film, a book, a game or a TV series. The brilliance of the idea is such that its chosen media vehicle becomes a huge success. Desperate to cash-in on the success of that idea, its owners will then sanction the creation of sequels, prequels, spin-offs and media tie-ins that make them a lot of money whilst devaluing the original idea thanks to over-exploitation, over-familiarity and the corrosive inertia of too many bad decisions. Down on its luck, the franchise then lies dormant until people either forget the bad decisions or a new idea reinvigorates the old one allowing the franchise to be re-launched, re-imagined or re-booted.
In 1968, Pierre Boulle’s 1963 science fiction novel gave birth to a surprisingly thoughtful and visually striking film directed by Franklin J. Schaffner. Planet of the Apes was such a success that it went on to spawn four cinematic sequels and a short-lived TV series, by which time the idea was well and truly played out (for a great overview of the original films, check out Matt Singer’s piece here). Mindful that TV repeats and home video cinephilia had transformed these old films into objects of cult veneration, studio executives hired Tim Burton to helm a ‘re-imagining’ of the original franchise. However, far from re-invigorating the franchise, Burton’s under-written chase picture only served to bury it beneath an avalanche of sneers and titters rendered all the more toxic by that Simpsons episode. Planet of the Apes! What a stupid idea for a movie!
Fast-forward ten years and trailers for a new Planet of the Apes movie began to appear in theatres and websites. The trailers for Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes featured lots of CGI and a gorilla attacking a helicopter. When I first saw this trailer in a cinema, people laughed. However, far from being risible, Wyatt’s finished film is nothing short of a triumph. A delicious surprise given its recent cinematic antecedents, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the most effective and thought-provoking Hollywood films to appear this year.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a neuroscientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s. Though still in the experimental stages, his drug has visibly boosted the intelligence of its chimpanzee test subject. Seeking the okay to progress to human trials, Rodman approaches his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) who prepares a pitch for the board. However, when the handlers try to remove the test chimp from her cage, the chimp goes wild and breaks free. Jumping to the conclusion that the drug has hideous side effects, Jacobs and the board order the project shut down and the chimp test subjects destroyed. In the aftermath of this disaster, the handlers discover that, far from having been driven mad by the drug, the test chimp was in fact trying to protect her newly-born child, a young chimp with uncanny levels of intelligence and who winds up being adopted by Rodman.
When Rodman arrives home, we see him unpacking crates as someone plays the piano badly in the background. ‘How’s he doing?’ Rodman asks, the nurse responds that he is having a good day and that he has been quoting Shakespeare. For a moment, one cannot help but think that this mysterious person might well be the baby chimp from the office but it turns out to be Rodman’s father Charles (John Lithgow), an accomplished academic reduced to a child-like state by an advanced case of Alzheimer’s disease. Charles and the baby chimp bond instantly as both have been unwillingly placed in the position of being Rodman’s children: the chimp because his mother was destroyed and Charles because of the disease affecting his brain.
As the months pass, the chimp acquires the name of Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his cognitive capacities grow alongside those of Charles who is now also a recipient of Rodman’s drug. Caesar is a happy and hugely energetic child who uses sign language to communicate with his family. However, Caesar’s happiness is dented when he attempts to play with one of the neighbourhood children and the child’s father attacks him. Therein lies the first of Caesar’s lessons: Humans may be like apes but they are fearful of apes and they consider them nothing more than animals.
Though quite thinly written, these early scenes serve to interrogate what it means to be human. Charles’s return to adult cognition mirrors Caesar’s steady intellectual improvement and the fact that both owe their intelligence to a drug suggests that, as far as the film is concerned, the line between human and ape is far from an obvious one. The distinction between human and animal is also challenged by the behaviour of Rodman’s psychotic neighbour whose reactions to any form of uncertainty betray a capacity for anger and violence that is downright inhuman.
After a second run-in with the neighbour, the police are called and Caesar is sent to a primate sanctuary. At this point, the film shifts in both emphasis and genre. No longer concerned with its human characters, the film fully commits to having Caesar as its primary protagonist. As we follow Caesar’s attempts to grow up and make sense of his new environment, the film uses a combination of brilliant motion-capture acting, smart visual design and genuinely affective scripting, to force its audience to empathise with a bunch of CGI apes. Each of the apes has its own personality, its own physicality and its own set of unique motivations. We empathise with these creatures both because they are incredibly well rounded characters and because their human handlers reveal themselves to be nothing more than sadistic prison guards. Indeed, Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ second act is nothing more than an old-fashioned prison movie in which Caesar concocts an elaborate escape plan.
Back in the human world, things are not going well for Charles. His immune system has begun to attack Rodman’s intelligence boosting virus and his Alzheimer’s is back with a vengeance. Desperate to keep hold of his dad, Rodman designs a more powerful version of the drug that can be administered as a gas. While this new version of the drug ‘uplifts’ a visibly scarred ape named Koba (Christopher Gordon) to the same levels of intelligence as Caesar, it also proves fatal to humans and is virulently infectious.
The film ends with Caesar leading the apes to freedom in a brilliantly conceived and directed series of action sequences on and around San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Thrilling and powerfully inventive, this sequence boasts a number of genuinely iconic cinematic moments such as the apes’ use of fence-posts to attack on an animal control vehicle and the use of falling leaves to signify the ape army’s advance in a shot that is eerily reminiscent of the shot in Spielberg’s Jurassic Park where the T-Rex announces his presence through ripples in a glass of water. However, what is most impressive about these sequences is not their visual impact but their capacity to reveal deeper truths about the characters. For example, when one ape sacrifices himself to save Caesar, Caesar is tempted to respond by killing the human responsible. However, because his experiences of humans have not been all bad, Caesar does not allow apes to kill humans. Koba, on the other hand, has spent his life being tortured by human scientists and he does not hesitate when the chance to get even presents itself. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended as a full reboot of the series and a couple of sequels have evidently been planned so it is intriguing to note how the film tucks away possible plot hooks. For example, Koba is introduced as being just as intelligent as Caesar but his attitude to humans is evidently far less charitable. The scene in which Koba begins to challenge Caesar’s leadership and then thinks better of it hints at a future confrontation between these two apes as Caesar’s liberal attitude towards humans enters into conflict with Koba’s far more vindictive political agenda.
One of the most impressive things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is its lightness of touch. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver litter the film both with references to the original films and plot-hooks for potential sequels but while none of these meta-fictional moments stand out as clunking or obvious, they are there and once you notice them it is difficult not to feel a certain amount of frustration about the film’s failure to immediately pay them off. For example, some of the least successful elements in the film are its human characters. Franco’s Rodman provides the audience with a set of narrative training wheels that serve to introduce us to the world of the film while Caesar slowly grows into his responsibilities as protagonist. However, at no point do Rodman’s motivations of feelings ever snap into focus. Similarly, Rodman’s girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) serves no purpose whatsoever despite the suggestion that her arrival in Rodman’s life diverts his attention from Caesar and so makes the chimp resentful. While none of these characters feel particularly real, they do feature in a number of symbolic motifs that appear throughout the film without ever being fully addressed. For example, the film’s opening act pays quite a bit of attention to the similarities and differences between Charles and Caesar’s relationships with Rodman. Rodman is Charles’s son but he is forced to act as his father until he develops a drug that allows his father to ‘be the dad’ again. This desire to remain in a state of arrested development stands in stark contrast to Caesar’s smooth transition from child to surly teenager and finally to adulthood. The film riffs quite extensively on the adult-child relationship by featuring a simian hand gesture that signifies submission. Given that the film ends with the apes having emancipated themselves just as humanity begins to fall beneath the blows of a deadly virus, I feel that the film wants to make a wider point about humanity’s refusal to accept its responsibilities and the apes becoming the planetary grown-ups because of humanity’s self-imposed state of permanent adolescence. In fact, I was surprised that the film did not end with Rodman using the ape hand gesture to signify his submission to Caesar and his recognition that Caesar is now the ‘grown-up’ in charge. Whether due to studio interference or a desire to use this thematic arc in a possible sequel, the film’s failure to address themes that are quite obviously present does make for a distracting viewing experience.
As joyous and unusual as it may be to root for characters from an Other species (especially when that species is in direct opposition to our own), Rise of the Planet of the Apes’s refusal to commit to its own themes does deprive it of a deeper meaning that could have made this one of the greatest science fiction films of all time. Visually arresting, elegantly written and flawless in its pacing and action beats, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best films that Hollywood has produced this year… but it could have been a lot more. I hope that a sequel does get made as these characters and themes demand further exploration.