Perhaps the most brilliant narrative move in a host of brilliant narrative moves executed by Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it's an "end of the world" movie that manages to make us forget it's an "end of the world" movie.
So effectively does director Rupert Wyatt's prequel/reboot of the legendary Apes brand (after Tim Burton's much-ballyhooed "re-imagining" flamed out ten years ago) draw us into the story of ape revolutionary Caesar, tracking his journey from childhood to Che-hood, that by the time we arrive at the promised inevitability of the title, it comes as a genuine surprise. Unlike the misguided Burton venture, Rise proves that a Hollywood blockbuster doesn't always have to have its eyes on the franchise. And ironically enough, by keeping its focus on telling the story at hand as completely as possible, Fox may just have given Apes the second life it's long been searching for.
Set in present day San Franscisco, film follows genetic researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) as he works to find a cure for Alzheimer's in time to help his afflicted father Charles (John Lithgow). Testing his formula on apes, Rodman takes home an infant chimpanzee who had the gene treatment passed on from his mother and who soon begins displaying rapid brain development in the absence of any extant damage. Named Caesar, the chimp (a digital creation performed by Andy Serkis, with the wizards at WETA filling in the rest) quickly becomes a part of the family, but as time goes by, he becomes increasingly aware that his advanced intelligence sets him apart from his fellow apes, and the fact that he is an ape means he'll never be accepted among humans.
As Charles' condition deteriorates, he has an altercation with a neighbor (David Hewlett, as the most unreasonable human being on Earth), and Caesar intervenes to violent results, leading to his being placed in a primate shelter where he encounters his own kind for the first time. With his heightened intellect quickly elevating him in the apes' social strata, and his experiences with the callous minder of the facility (Bryan Cox) and his cruel son (Tom Felton) making him aware of man's capacity for inhumanity, a revolution begins to brew. Meanwhile, desperate to help his father, Will concocts a new serum that carries with it some results he hadn't anticipated. Thus do several interconnected trails of dominos begin to topple over in turn, building to a showdown between ape and man that may just decide the fate of the planet.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes went through a bit of an identity crisis on its way to your local cineplex, beginning its development life under the title Caesar, then becoming Rise of the Apes, and then finally arriving at its current designation. What's interesting about this is that, by changing its title from an oblique reference to the prior Apes series to one that specifically situates it within that brand, it also changes how we view the story. Once you state explicitly that your story is a prequel to Planet of the Apes, it creates a specific set of expectations that we take into the theater with us based on the iconography that the franchise has already trafficked in. What takes more skill is knowing when to conform to those expectations and when to subvert them, and Wyatt and his team do both masterfully.
As became abundantly clear in my Planet of the Apes retro reviews last week, at its core, the Apes series has always been about self-inflicted wounds -- the idea that man's unquenchable hubris inevitably leads to catastrophic consequences both for himself and those around him, whether manifested through cruelty to animals or cruelty to himself. And while Rise swaps out the first Apes cycle's fears of impending nuclear Armageddon (a reflection of the times in which they were made) for the twin threats of genetic engineering and the hypothetical "supervirus" (a reflection of our times today), more important than what's changed is what's retained: the central conceit that man's downfall comes as a result of his own actions.
That's the reason the first film's final image of Charlton Heston crumpled in front of a half-buried Statue of Liberty retains so much iconic significance, and why we're even talking about this series more than forty years after it first hit the pop culture radar. And though the latter entries in the Apes quintology (around the time Roddy McDowall became the headliner) saw our loyalties cross over from human to ape, Rise is even more unabashed in putting us squarely on the apes' side, with the (unintended?) side-effect of making us complicit in our own downfall as we root for the creatures that the franchise's storied history tells us have every intention of toppling us from the top of the mountain.
Obviously I can't say enough about how well WETA makes Caesar and his ape cohorts fully-realized characters in their own right. It's fitting that the ape characters here represent a quantum leap forward for special effects technology just as John Chambers' ape makeup represented a revolution in makeup technology back in 1968, and it tells you how confident the filmmakers are in their creations that they give over whole stretches of the running time to the digital menagerie, where they seamlessly occupy the screen and hold our interest.
Unlike the McDowall Caesar in 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis' version is motivated less by revenge than he is the desire to be free, making it a whole lot easier to sympathize with the apes' goals, which may not necessarily include eventually hunting human beings while on horseback (though if they end up on horseback at some point, hey, whaddya do, right?). Also worth mentioning is the sweeping, epic musical score from Patrick Doyle, a far cry from the practiced dissonance the late Jerry Goldsmith brilliantly modeled for the original series.
Unfortunately, the human characters are less well-served, rarely rising above the stock roles the script (by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) has sketched out for them. This isn't as much of a problem as you'd think though, because the humans are never the focus anyway, and also because Wyatt selected a group of actors who can do what's asked without calling attention to how thin their roles are. Of the humans, Franco and Lithgow fare the best, with Franco especially (in a variation on the Ricardo Montalban role in Conquest) having a pretty important role to play in that it's his moral compass that Caesar imprints on, like any child, and so he has to come off as upstanding and noble enough to be a role model, but also complicated enough to drive our interest.
On the other hand, Freida Pinto isn't able to do much with her nothing role as Will's veterinarian love interest. Her part in the narrative is an important one, in that her presence drives home for Caesar the isolation that he feels, but the character -- who mostly just pops up to chide Will for the usual "meddling in things man wasn't meant to know" stuff -- isn't just underwritten, it's practically non-existent. Another weak link is Felton, just wrapping his ten-year stint as Harry Potter's nemesis and transitioning into a variation on that role as the ape-hating guard. Again, it's not that Felton does a bad job with what he's given, it's that he's not given very much.
None of that should be taken away from the remarkable feat achieved here, though, both in terms of the groundbreaking effects work, and also in terms of bringing a dead property roaring back to life. While this film was put together with a clear eye towards its future, with several subtle and not-so-subtle nods to the series' past and potential future layered in, and plenty of dangling plot threads that can be picked up down the line (such as a big tell partway through the credits that you'd do well to stick around for), it nonetheless stands completely on its own, with its surprisingly emotional coda asking for -- rather than demanding -- a sequel.
Amazingly enough (especially considering all the grief I've given them over the years), for the second time this summer, Fox has taken one of their beloved properties to the prequel well, and just as with June's X-Men: First Class, they've emerged with one of the season's strongest offerings. Rise of the Planet of the Apes neatly lays the pipe for the 1968 classic that got the whole thing started, but also sets the stage for an entirely new franchise that has the potential to go in an entirely new direction. And I, for one, look forward to what we can next expect from our new ape overlords.
Editor's note: A previous version of this post incorrectly stated that the script was based on a story by Scott Frank.