Not that 20th Century-Fox or anyone involved in the production of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” cares, but earlier in the year as the promotion ramped up, I was very hard on this prequel/sort-of remake. The story looked cheesy, the CGI looked fake, I’m tired of James Franco — and because of my influence on all things pop culture, upon release a flurry of good reviews came in, as did a half billion dollars in ticket sales. Well, I’ve finally had a chance to see the “Rise” for myself on Blu-ray, and all I can say is…
I was wrong.
And I’m sorry.
The first chapter of how primates inevitably take over the planet and dominate man is far from a classic, but at 110 minutes, the story is briskly told, told well, and satisfying. Director Rupert Wyatt’s direction of the action scenes is first rate, and the screenplay offers up a perfectly plausible scenario that explains how a PETA wet dream might come true.
James Franco plays it straight as Will Rodman, a researcher for the San Francisco-based Gen-Sys, one of those evil pharmaceutical companies that puts profits above all else. But because Will wears a Berkeley t-shirt, we know he’s a good guy interested only in serving humanity. Actually, what drives Will is the fate of his father (the always welcome John Lithgow), who’s slowly disappearing due to the uncompromising ravages of Alzheimer’s. Will’s aggressively working on a cure and is now ready to try human testing with a new virus-based serum he’s developed.
Primates are an important part of the serum’s trial experiments, where the idea is to repair and rejuvenate the brain. The good and bad news is that an increased intelligence is a noticeable result in the apes injected with the drug. Inevitably, something goes horribly wrong, which results in Will taking a baby chimp home to save it from being put down. The chimp is Caesar (brought to life by an impressive motion capture performance from Andy Serkis) and before long, Caesar becomes the rambunctious baby of the house.
Caesar, however, is also uncommonly smart and self-aware, and what Will discovers is that the serum given to Caesar’s mother affected him in the womb. This realization leads Will into another series of well-intentioned experiments that result in a horrible series of unintended consequences.
Because we already know the inevitable outcome, as is the case with most well-crafted prequels, the fun comes from watching how it happens, and in that respect the story is seamless and imaginative. Politically, the themes are in keeping with the original franchise: pro-animal rights and anti-human, with a little drug company bashing to boot. Nothing is overt and in your face, though, so this is far from an obnoxious message film.
What’s most impressive is how the narrative takes its time in developing the Caesar character. At heart, “Rise” is the story of the events that created an intelligent, embittered, and savvy revolutionary who would eventually take over the world. Moreover, on paper, the idea of CGI’d apes running loose in Frisco doing battle with the police sounded positively cheesy, but somehow it works.
Some of you might recall that the fourth film in the original franchise also told this story. The J. Lee Thompson (working miracles with no budget) directed “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (1972) brilliantly used what had occurred in the previous films to explain the evolution of apes from slaves to slavemaster. But other than the “rise,” the two films have absolutely nothing in common.
Written by the married team of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, “Rise” is a little too simplistic in spots: the angry neighbor, the corporate malfeasance, the animal abuse at the shelter Caesar eventually finds himself in. But none of that changes the fact that the movie sure is entertaining.
The CGI does look a little fake, though.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes'” is available today at Amazon.