Raise your hand if you've had August 5th circled on your moviegoing calendar.... Uh-huh, thought so. I can't recall a big 'summer movie that seemed as anticipated less than Rise of the Planet of the Apes appears to be. But you know what? You should want to see it, because it's cracking good.
Built as a prequel to the 1968 classic, "Rise" is the calm before the storm that would eventually upend mankind and lead to the Lawgiver writing down the various evils of man on his scrolls. Yes, I'm a big Apes nerd, which is why I wasn't exactly doing cartwheels when I heard this movie was happening. The last time the Apes cinema-verse was re-visited, Mark Wahlberg was sleepwalking his way through Tim Burton's senseless 2001 remake.
But with this film, the bad taste left over from that movie has finally been removed.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not your typical summer actioner. It's not an action film at all, actually. There is one spectacular extended set piece, but this is old-school science fiction filmmaking. It's about mood setting, about planting seeds -- much like the original Planet of the Apes was. Director Rupert Wyatt takes his time unrolling his movie -- a bit too much, it should be said -- but what he lays out for us is a fascinating look at the consequences of scientific ambition fueled by personal feelings.
This movie takes us to the very beginning, to show us how it is that the human race would find itself in the evolutionary pickle depicted in the original picture. In present-day San Francisco, research is happening that could lead to a breakthrough in the treatment of Alzheimer’s. The drug developed by an ambitious scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) looks to be the magic bullet. We'll learn later in the movie that it has unintended and dire side effects.
But when the prize test subject, the ape called 'Bright Eyes,' (a tip of the cap to the nickname Charlton Heston's 'Taylor' had in the 1st Apes movie) is killed by security guards after an outburst, Will is forced to take his work home with him. He sneaks Bright Eyes' baby out of the drug labs to keep him from being put down when the entire research project is scrapped.
Caesar, we'll soon learn, has inherited the experimental drug's properties from his mother.
Will is actually caring for two. John Lithgow plays Franco's father, whose life and dignity is being dismantled by Alzheimer’s. The drug however, causes immediate improvement in the elder Rodman. We spend a lot of time watching Caesar grow, from a precocious young primate who can sign, to an Ape with a grasp of basic human emotions. Like curiosity, and compassion.
Like during the moment where Lithgow’s character, falling victim again to the onslaught of Alzheimer’s, can’t remember how to use his fork during a meal. Caesar reaches over and gently turns the fork around. No words are exchanged, just knowing glances, but the bond between the two is clear.
But no amount of domestication can change the fact that beneath all of the intelligence is beastly rage. Those moments grow intensity as the film progresses. And it works beautifully, thanks to the genius of Andy Serkis.There is no overstating Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the unnaturally intelligent and cunning ape at the center of the film's simian uprising. Think about the stones it takes to put your big-budget possible franchise re-launcher square in the hands of an actor whose face you'll never see once in the movie. Because make no mistake, as Caesar, Serkis is the star. It only works because of his mastery of performance capture acting allows him to stretch the boundaries of CGI work to unknown levels.
Instead of grand, dramatic gestures, Caesar is all about subtlety. The menacing glare, the dismissive sneer, the acknowledging head nod; Caesar is the Frank Morris of the Ape prison. He runs the yard, not because he's the biggest or strongest. He's neither.
But he has the most respect.
By the time he's ready to make his play, his simian soldiers are prepared to lay down their lives for Caesar. As he signs to his baboon confidante, 'Ape alone. Weak. Ape together? Strong.'
So begins the revolution.
Director Wyatt Easter eggs his movie with several nods to Planet of the Apes. Some, like the TV footage of a space mission to Mars, are subtle. Is that supposed to be the same astronaut crew that will travel into the year 3978, crash landing on an Earth run by Apes?
Others are not quite as discreet. Tom Felton gets to utter the franchise's signature line, but his tone is a lot different than Charlton Heston's when he says, 'get your stinking..' oh hell, do I really need to actually write it out?
As the doctor whose personal stakes push him to the boundaries of ethical research, Franco is empathetic. His relationship with Caesar is well drawn. However, once Caesar is taken from him, the movie shifts toward Caesar's evolution. Franco and his girlfriend, the woefully under-used Frieda Pinto, become strictly cameo players.
Even Brian Cox gets pushed aside for monkey business. Whenever he shows up in a movie like this -- and if you've seen X2: X-Men United or Troy, you know what I mean -- you almost start a countdown to his onscreen comeuppance. Instead it’s Harry Potter alum Felton who gets to play the role of 'sadistic human.'
But it doesn't matter, because what you want is to see what happens to the apes.
As the movie finally arrives at its crescendo, it does so with drums banging. The jailbreak, followed by the mad chase through the streets of San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge, is some kind of awesome. Northern California comes into play in this climactic fight between the ape army and human law enforcement.
Caesar uses the fog and the natural surroundings to his advantage; He's a primate Patton, who outfoxes his upright opponents effortlessly. Yet he also manages to maintain a certain sense of honor. As the film concludes, the threads for future stories are clearly laid out. And it should be said, it's done with a clever plausibility, at least as plausible as a scenario can be in which Ape ousts Man.
The only way an Ape army survives against man's superior firepower is to seek shelter where those weapons can't touch them, somewhere that puts the battle in the apes' favor. Hello, Northern California Redwood forests.
The final scene offers even more signs of impending bad news for humanity’s future, but we won't spoil that here.
Is this a great movie? No, it's not, but it misses by just a little bit. Certain story lines are started and discarded. Franco, Pinto and Cox aren't given enough to do in the last half of the picture. And the first 45 minutes sometimes feels like you're watching "Leave It to Caesar.
But Rise of the Planet of the Apes is ambitious. It raises moral questions and makes the kind of statements about relevant social concerns that great sci-fi has always done. In tone, pace and spirit, it is the Apes movie that most closely resembles the film that kicked off the franchise.
The big difference between the two movies is of course, that aside from Vera and Cornelius, a human -- Taylor -- was still the most compelling character in the 1968 movie. The tables have turned in this one.
It was as if, during the editing process, Wyatt realized the best, most human characters in his movie weren't the actual humans; it was the computer-generated apes.
(Michael Avila is a writer based in New York City; follow his Pop Culture musings on Twitter: @mikeavila)Got a comment? There's lots of conversation on Newsarama's FACEBOOK and TWITTER!