The smartest monkeys: Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The original 1968 film version of The Planet of the Apes had an awful lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed science fiction novel (Monkey Planet) by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the RiverKwai,had been adapted into a blockbusterfilm). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (who would later direct Patton, Papillon and The Boys from Brazil). It sported a sharply intelligent screenplay, adapted by Michael Wilson and the great Rod Serling. And, of course, it starred Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELLLL!!!!”). Perhaps most notably, it happened to open the same month as Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Both Kubrick’s and Schaffner’s films not only blew minds, but raised the bar on audience expectations for sci-fi movies; each was groundbreaking in its own unique way.
The film ended with…well, one of the best “endings” ever; a classic “Big Reveal” (drenched in that trademark Serling irony) that still gives me chills. Now, they could have very well left it right there. Yes, it also “ended” with Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset (with a hot brunette), which can imply that the story “continues”, but a lot of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; they don’t all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a huge box office success, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…well, you know. So in 1970 we were treated to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, which, while certainly watchable, was nonetheless (how can I put this delicately?) a few steps “beneath” its predecessor…literally and figuratively. Still, it sold lots of tickets, which inspired yet another sequel-Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), which, while fairly silly, was actually kind of fun-although it set up a time travel paradox that makes your head explode (because it’s a sequel and a prequel!). The cheesy Conquest for the Planet of the Apes (1972) and series killer Battle for the Planet of theApes (1973) were no more than cash-in prequels. But nothing could have prepared us for the mind-numbing ghastliness of Tim Burton’s pointless 2001 remake of Schaffner’s 1968 original...although it likely accounts for the resultant decade of silence.
To be honest, I had absolutely no idea that another attempt was being made to recharge the franchise until I began noticing TV trailers for Rise of the Planet of theApes a few weeks ago (was it a state secret or something?). I hadn’t been invited to a press screening; if there was one, it was likely under the auspices of the one Seattle film publicity firm to whom I have yet to “prove” my worthiness…I’m still awaiting a ‘yea’ or ‘nay’ on my acceptance into some lofty online critics society, which is the first of many hoops this firm is requiring me to jump through before even being considered (perhaps I would have been a shoo-in if I just lied and told them that I was Jeffrey Lyons’ son?). So I swallowed my pride and stood in line (I know-how common) to buy a full-price ticket (the sacrifices I make for you people) and sulkily settled into my seat, fully prepared to hate it with the intensity of 1000 suns and already formulating the verbal savaging I would surely be doling out with my poison pen. But I’ll be a damned dirty ape if I didn’t find director Rupert Wyatt’s film (co-written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) to be not only much, much better than I had expected, but to be one of the better sci-fi flicks in recent memory.
Now, you must be prepared to suspend disbelief regarding one item right off the bat-James Franco as a genetic engineer. I know that’s a bit of a stretch, but if you can get past that-you’ll be good to go for the remainder of the film (hey-I had no problem accepting Raquel Welch as a scientist in Fantastic Voyage-so there you are). Franco (channeling a young Tom Berenger) is Will Rodman, a San Francisco-based researcher who is working on a serum that could possibly reverse the ravages of Alzheimer’s. His quest is not only professionally driven, but personal-his father (John Lithgow, in a poignant performance) is suffering from the disease. Will’s ‘star’ test subject is a female lab chimp called Bright Eyes (name checking ape scientist Kim Hunter’s moniker for her human “subject” Heston in the 1968 film-the first of myriad references). Bright Eyes has undergone an interesting metamorphosis after being injected with the experimental serum-a super accelerated learning curve and level of intelligence hitherto unseen in simians. On the eve of a presentation that could assure future funding, an unfortunate lab incident leaves Bright Eyes dead and suggests a grievously counterproductive side effect of the formula. Will consequently becomes a “foster parent”, when an empathetic chimp handler, after receiving orders to destroy all extant test animals involved in the now-defunct research project, smuggles Bright Eyes’ newborn, Caesar, from harm’s way and into Will’s care.
As Caesar matures, it becomes apparent that he has “inherited” his mother’s preternatural intelligence; he becomes a de facto member of the family, communicating with Will via sign language. In the meantime, Will, frustrated by the helplessness he feels as his father’s condition worsens, injects Dad with the yet-to-be-perfected serum. Initial results are encouraging; his father seems to be in a miraculous remission, with his memory and cognitive abilities returning to full and normal function. Will develops a relationship with a primatologist (Slumdog Millionaire’s Freida Pinto) who shares his fascination with Caesar’s mental development, but expresses concerns about the chimp’s emotional growth as he approaches maturity. Those fears are realized one fateful day when Caesar runs amok in the neighborhood. Caesar is picked up by Animal Control and taken to a state-run “halfway house” of sorts for impounded simians (more like a prison, actually) lorded over by a duplicitous “warden” (Brian Cox) and his evil, creepy son (Tom Felton).
To avoid spoilers, I won’t divulge too much more. At this point, the narrative switches from Flowers for Algernon (an obvious influence, even if it doesn’t get a “based on a story by Daniel Keyes” nod in the end credits) to more or less a “reimagining” of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which the hyper-intelligent adult Caesar spearheads a Spartacus-style revolt against The Man (with perhaps a touch of homage to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison noir, Brute Force…or maybe I’ve just seen too many damn movies). Wyatt may even be borrowing from his own 2008 prison drama, The Escapist (which I reviewed here). At any rate, if all this touchy-feely Dr. Doolittle stuff in the first act has you squirming in your seat and wondering when the cool “apes taking over the planet” action movie tropes are going to kick in-it’s right about then. There are some rousing set-pieces, especially a spectacular simian vs. human showdown that takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge (the film could be read as a PETA revenge fantasy). BTW, no apes were harmed in the making of this film-they are all computer generated (with a little anthropomorphic “acting” enhancement via the Olivier of the green screen, Andy Serkis).
So is this entry destined to be considered a “classic”, in the same vein as the original Planet of theApes movie? No, not exactly. But in relative terms, compared to the majority of films passing as “sci-fi” these days, this one harkens back (in a good way) to the genre’s classic era-before it became all about the special effects and the monstro production budgets. There was a time when sci-fi was more about imagination, ideas and (most importantly) intelligent, thoughtful writing. If I may conjure up Mr. Serling again-consider his groundbreaking television series, The Twilight Zone. Not a lot of budget on display in those episodes-in fact most of the special effects work is downright laughable by today’s standards. But the series had one enduring quality that will never feel dated: great storytelling-that “something” that is sorely lacking in much Hollywood fare these days. Don’t get me wrong-when I go to the movies, I’m there to be “entertained” as much as the next schlub; I don’t mind a little explosion here and there to keep me awake. But I enjoy a little exposition, as well. After all-isn’t that what separates us from the monkeys?