No one’s saying it, probably because so few actually know anything about the Planet of the Apes franchise’s history, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is basically a remake. Set in the same universe as the classic 1968 Charlton Heston film in which an astronaut finds himself stranded on a planet where Apes are an intelligent ruling class who keep humans as slaves, Rise tells the story of how the Apes came to power in the first place. It’s a story that’s already been told in the 1972 movie Conquest of the Planet of the Apes , but told poorly. The original Apes film is a science fiction masterpiece but the sequels and eventual prequels that followed were of increasingly lesser quality and as a result increasingly less seen. That makes Rise the best kind of remake, the kind that sets out to right what once went wrong.
In doing that Rise ditches most of the specifics of the 1972 movie, which was set in a future society on planet Earth, and instead sets itself in modern times. It keeps only a few nods to that movie’s premise, such as the name of the movie’s simian lead: Caesar. James Franco may get top billing on the movie’s posters, but at best he’s only a supporting character, the irresponsible but well meaning scientist who accidentally gives a baby chimp super-intelligence in the course of searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s.
Franco’s character, who should definitely have been named Dr. Zaius but ends up being called Dr. Rodman instead, sneaks his super-intelligent chimp out of the lab and raises him at home as a pet. He names the baby ape Caesar and marvels at his hairy friend’s rapid mental development while taking him for occasional walks in the park. Except as you’d expect from any sentient creature, as the chimp grows older and starts to test the limits of his human intelligence, he begins to resent being kept on a leash. Worse, he worries at the bondage his ape brothers are kept in, seen through his eyes it’s almost as though his cousins are being kept as slaves. All of this is conveyed without words by a creature created entirely by computer generated effects, thanks in no small part to a performance given by the never seen on screen Andy Serkis, sweating away on stage while wearing a motion capture outfit.
As he did with Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Serkis gives Caesar a life beyond that of any normal animated creation. He feels real, worse he feels utterly frightening. Most of that is conveyed with a glance, or a look, sometimes it’s conveyed with crazed fits of rage. Caesar may be intelligent, but the wild heart of an ape still beats within his chest. That could have been a problem because Rise of the Planet of the Apes needs someone for the audience to root for, and for all his gentleness sometimes Caesar seems as though he wants to rip your arms off.
If you know anything about the original film then you know that in the end the humans are going to lose. Franco’s character may be likable but you know going in that anything he tries to do is ultimately hopeless. That means we have to sympathize with Caesar’s revolution and, when apes start roaming the streets ripping apart our best Victoria’s Secrets, it’s hard not to resent that. Yet, amazingly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes pulls it off. It does it slowly, allowing us to be scared of Caesar while also admiring him, it builds an ethos around him, makes more than a monkey out of him. Maybe for some it won’t happen until the movie’s final few frames, but eventually, you may just find a little place inside yourself that’s rooting for those damn, dirty apes.
All of that works in part thanks to special effects technology, but in larger part because of the Rise script. The truly shocking, unforgettable, genre changing moment of the Heston film in which both he and the audience learn the true identity of the planet on which he’s been stranded can never be topped, so Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t try. Instead it sets out simply to be a well-crafted, carefully woven, big budget summer movie. It contains elements of smart science fiction, maybe even a few ideas which some might find challenging, but for the most part it knows its place and simply sets out to be the best it can possibly be as a solid summer movie. It works exactly as it should.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t a game changer or a brain teaser or the kind of movie people will be talking about years from now. It’s not without its problems either. While the special effects are for the most part incredibly convincing, with that many computer generated apes running around on screen every once in awhile at least one of them is bound to look a little cartoony. There’s a strange bit of unexplained fudging when it comes to sense of scale too, the movie never seems sure just how big Caesar is supposed to be. Is he a normal sized chimpanzee or is he some sort of giant, genetic freak? It’s never addressed in the subtext, but by the end of the film he’s suddenly eye to eye with James Franco, almost looming over him, even though earlier in the day he seemed about waist-high. This Caesar, for all his skills, would never work as a stand-in for BJ’s best friend Bear. I doubt he could fit inside the big rig’s cab.
So this isn’t the Heston movie reborn or even particularly compelling science fiction, but it is solid blockbuster filmmaking. This is a well made movie, the kind that deserves praise for setting out to do something and doing it very well. Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves your ticket dollars, and since it isn’t in 3D, you don’t even have to spend all that many of them to see it. Support it and maybe in the next one they’ll bring back good old Dr. Zaius.