Hooray for Hollywood reboots/remakes! Are you as sick of them as I am? Normally, I’m not a big fan of reboots and remakes, especially if they involve changing the details of an origins story (see my X-Men: First Class review). But there are exceptions to every rule. Case in point: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes completely rewrites the origins for Planet of the Apes that was depicted in the third film Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The original story involved survivors from the future, ape-run world being sent back in time to 1970’s earth and giving birth to an ape named Caesar who would eventually lead other apes in a violent revolution against humanity. In the original origin story, all the cats and dogs of humanity were killed by a plague, and humans started taking in apes and chimps as household pets. Eventually, those apes would be trained to serve as a subservient laborer class before revolting under the leadership of Caesar.
In some ways, Rise of the Planet of the Apes could be considered a “remake” of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in that it tells a different story for the origins of the ape-run world. In this version, James Franco plays an experimental researcher named Will Rodman who is testing Alzheimer’s treatments on apes, and these treatments create a race of super-intelligent (subjectively) apes. It’s a bit different than the original story – in that it has nothing at all to do with the original story – but when compared side-by-side, this new rendition is strictly better than the original. It makes more sense from a scientific standpoint. It’s more believable for a modern audience. And it doesn’t involve any silly time travel paradoxes in order to make it work.
And unlike Star Trek and X-Men: First Class, this “prequel/reboot” is telling a different story with different characters. We aren’t forced into accepting that established characters are going to develop into their familiar counterparts despite having their personal histories completely changed. If you're gonna do a reboot, either make it consistent with the original, or throw away the original completely; don't try to create some in-between Frankenstein hack-job.
In addition to being a worthy prequel/reboot, Rise is also a surprisingly good movie. From the trailers, I was expecting a simplistic action movie in which science goes awry and creates a CGI-monkey-apocalypse. Imagine Jurassic Park, but with smart monkeys instead of dinosaurs. Instead, I was treated to a genuinely thoughtful, personal, and compassionate traditional science fiction story. This movie has more in common with introspective stories like Bicentennial Man than with playing-God-goes-wrong stories like Jurassic Park or Resident Evil.
You might think that this movie is about James Franco’s character, Will Rodman. But in reality, the film focuses on the ape character Caesar. Thus, the line between animal and human is so thoroughly blurred that viewers will feel more sympathy for the ape characters than for any of the human characters. And the movie accomplishes this without making the humans arbitrarily cruel to the apes (although some unjustified cruelty does occur); but rather, because the ape characters (mostly just Caesar) are so well-developed.
Supplementing the quality development of the ape characters is some exception CGI work. These are not the CGI spider-monkeys from Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Fortunately, George Lucas’ piss-poor-quality CGI direction had absolutely no influence on this movie! A lot of work and care was taken to make sure that the apes all look as believable as possible. There are times when you can tell they are CG (one scene where Caesar is hugging John Lithgow looked particularly awkward for me), but for the most part it works exceptionally well. And as stated by reviewers Mike Stoklasa and Jay Bauman in their web-isode review from Half In the Bag, the fact that the apes are completely CGI (instead of part-time CGI and part-time real animal) works in the film’s favor because it eliminates the sometimes jarring transition from live action animal to CGI character.
Caesar hugging senior Rodman (played by John Lithgow) is a rare awkward-looking CGI scene.
Aside from one major plot hole (which I’ll discuss later), I also felt that the movie did not insult my intelligence by dumbing itself down to pander to the “casual audience”. Now, this doesn’t mean that the movie is full of techno-babble, and the average person won’t understand it. There is a fair amount of techno-babble, but the events of the film are already easy enough to follow even if you don’t understand the fancy science-talk. It doesn’t try to highlight superfluous aspects of the story in an attempt to add drama or appeal to a wider audience. It doesn't stop to expain things in words when it can show you with events (which is the whole point of movies!). There are subplots that are very important to the overarching storyline, but the movie lets the audience fill in the details of how those will impact greater universe in which the movie takes place. There is a romance, but it is in the background and not important, and it never takes focus away from the main story. Everything that happens in the movie drives the narrative forward in a meaningful way.
This does mean that the audience has to pay much closer attention to what is going on in the movie. But those who do pay attention will be rewarded with insight and foreshadowing into what is going on in the bigger picture. It is absolutely delightful to finally see a movie that treats the audience with that much respect.
Before I go on to some more detailed analysis and criticism, I want to emphasize that I really enjoyed this movie! I highly recommend it to all my friends regardless of whether you liked the original Planet of the Apes or not. It doesn't take the crown away from Casino Royale as the gold standard for reboots, but it's a shining example of rebooting done right.
Right now, it is probably my favorite movie this year beside Battle: Los Angeles. In fact, I think I enjoyed this movie even more than Battle: LA, but I have to give Battle: LA some extra credit points for not including any major plot holes that I noticed. But plot hole or not, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best movie that I’ve seen this summer.
It's nice to see writers tell the story that they want to tell, instead of feeling pressured by the studio to degrade the movie by trying to appeal to as many demographics as they can.
Are you still here?
OK, that either means that you have already seen the movie and don’t mind hearing some more detailed critiquing of the plot; or it means that you have no intention of seeing the movie and don’t mind stuff being spoiled.
If you fall into that second category: shame on you! This is a good movie. Way worth $10, unlike other movies that you probably wasted your money on this summer *cough* Transformers 3 *cough*. So go see it!
OK. Here we go!
So I mentioned up above that there is a major plot hole in this film. It’s a pretty stupid blunder in my opinion, and I’m very surprised that nobody in the writing staff could think of a way around it. Because unfortunately, this plot hole is kind of the setup for the entire movie – it makes the entire movie happen…
Anyway, James Franco’s character (Will Rodman) is researching an Alzheimer’s treatment because his father (played by John Lithgow) suffers from the disease. The treatment that he has developed revolves around using a modified virus to inject new DNA into brain cells that allows the brain to repair existing neural pathways and create new ones. The effect is a full recovery from Alzheimer’s, as well as possibly many other brain disorders. At the beginning of the movie, this treatment is being tested on some apes as the research company that Rodman works for is considering beginning human trials.
Their prized subject, named Bright Eyes due to a side-effect of the drug that creates a bright green sparkle effect in the iris, is going to be shown off to the board of directors. But she refuses to leave her cage. As the animal handlers attempt to get her out of her cage, she goes berserk. She attacks a handler and runs off, tearing apart the laboratory before finally smashing into the meeting room where Rodman is addressing the board of directors, and she is shot and killed by a security guard.
Upset that this incident has cost him a lot of money, the manager of Rodman’s research project orders the work to start over from scratch, since the current drug apparently causes uncontrollable aggression in the subjects. He orders all the treated apes to be put down and work to begin from scratch.
Now here comes the plot hole: after putting down all the apes, the primary animal handler discovers that the reason that Bright Eyes went berserk was because she had apparently given birth overnight and panicked because she was afraid that the humans were going to hurt her baby. Rodman concludes that she must have been pregnant when they first brought her in for testing.
So let me get this straight…
Rodman’s research lab brought in an ape to perform medical experiments on her, and nobody could tell that she was pregnant?! If you’re going to do medical experiments on an animal, aren’t you supposed to start by running a full physical to make sure that she is healthy and fit enough to undergo the testing? You’re telling me that full physical did not reveal that she was pregnant? And nobody that worked with her on a daily basis figured it out?
Now I don’t know all that much about ape pregnancy, but apes are pretty similar to humans, and I do know a thing or two about human pregnancies. First of all, an otherwise in-shape human woman will show obvious visible signs that she is pregnant by about one-third of the way through the pregnancy. Second, pregnant humans tend to suffer from morning sickness, back pains, increased appetite, mood swings, and so forth during the course of the pregnancy. So this ape showed none of these signs? And if she did, then how does an entire research lab full of trained doctors, animal handlers, and psychologist fail to recognize them? Animal handlers at the zoo are typically able to tell when an animal is pregnant.
Baby Caesar is the star of the movie, but his birth sure seems like a plot-hole to me.
Not only did nobody notice that the animal was pregnant to begin with, but nobody notices that she gave birth either? This is your prized experimental test subject that's going to make you rich by curing one of the most challenging diseases known, and there is nobody watching the animal overnight to make sure that nothing goes wrong with her?
Nobody monitors the lab to make sure that the animals don't have sudden heart attacks or strokes or some other severe reaction to the experimental drugs that they are being given?
There aren't any overnight security guards or cameras installed in the lab in case PETA breaks in and tries to free all the animals?
Security in this lab is so loose that a chimpanzee can go through labor and it didn't alert anybody!
And then even after they found the baby, why the hell didn’t they tell the director? “Hey, our treatment works! It didn’t drive her insane. She was just protecting her baby. Can we continue with our experiments as planned?” No. Instead, Rodman decides to take the animal in on his own (in secret) and care for him like a pet. And this baby ape becomes the character on which all of the drama of the movie is based around!
Furthermore, the behavior of Bright Eyes is also put into question by the revelation that she had a baby. After all, if her uncharacteristic aggression was out of a maternal impulse to protect her baby (which was in her cage), why the hell doesn’t she – I don’t know – stay in the cage? Why does she run out and proceed to trash the entire facility instead of immediately retreating back into the cage with the infant?
... Sigh ...
This was a hard thing to get past because it is right at the beginning of the movie and is the setup for everything that happens after. It's the kind of thing that could potentially throw a viewer so far out of the movie that there is no coming back in. Considering how well-thought-out the rest of the movie is, I’m amazed that the writers couldn’t come up with a more plausible justification for the setup to the whole damn movie. But I’m glad that I didn’t give up on the movie right then and there, because from then on, it’s almost completely clear-sailing.
Cliches that work
As mentioned above, Rodman’s father is suffering from Alzheimer’s, and Rodman is caring for him at home with the help of a home nurse. Senior Rodman becomes very quickly attached to the baby ape that is brought home, and Rodman eventually has the bright idea to treat his own father with the experimental drug that was given to Bright Eyes and which created Caesar (who by this time is already showing signs of heightened intelligence).
Now, the inclusion of a family member suffering from the very illness that a main character is trying to cure is kind of clichéd. This cliché is further reinforced by the fact that Sr. Rodman relapses and Will has to go back and attempt to create a more virulent version of the viral treatment (which is something that plays into a major side-arch). But in this movie these clichés work exceptionally well because the bond between Senior Rodman and Caesar is the single most important element of the film that acts to humanize Caesar for the viewer and establish him as a sympathetic and relatable character. Sr. Rodman’s relapse also provides the catalyst for setting the main conflict of the movie in motion. Quite frankly, the movie probably wouldn’t have worked at all, had it not been for this cliché.
Although the focus of the movie is on the development of Caesar, there are several interweaving plot threads and archs going through the background of this film. I was very impressed with the fact that the writers managed to keep the movie on track and didn’t let it get derailed by a need to stop and explain all the stuff that was happening on the side. If you are not paying attention to every scene of this movie, you might be missing some very important details. This means that viewers are actually rewarded for paying attention, instead of being punished by having to sit through an unnecessarily slowed-down movie that wastes your time with explanations of things that you should already know if you have been paying attention.
Will Rodman’s personal struggle to find a cure for Alzheimer’s is the major secondary plot of this film. But the movie doesn’t focus on developing Rodman’s character, so that it can instead focus all its attention on Caesar and the things that directly affect him (and the future of his race). There’s a love story between Rodman and a veterinarian that is just kind of there. The movie doesn’t waste our time with unnecessary scenes of the two dating or falling in love. It just sort of happens in the background while we watch Caesar grow to adulthood. Sorry ladies, no mushy, lovey-dovey crap here.
Another subplot is that in his attempt to cure his father following the relapse, Rodman attempts to create a variation of the treatment using a more virulent version of the virus. This virus ends up infecting one of the animal handlers and eventually kills him, but not before he spreads it to Rodman’s neighbor, who is apparently a passenger airliner pilot. Oops. Like the love story, this sort of just happens in the background, and the movie doesn’t make a big deal about it because the characters have more immediately important things to deal with. In fact, if not for a slightly tacked-on – but neat – scene at the end of the movie (after the end title credits), the fact that this disease is going to spread and wipe out humanity is not even directly stated by the movie. Instead of including scenes explicitly outlining the spread of the disease, the writers leave it up to the viewers to fill in the end result for themselves. They help us a little with a cool animation depicting the spread of the disease during the end credits.
Hidden even further in the background are a few somewhat subtle references to a manned mission to Mars that launches during the course of the movie and then proceeds to get “lost in space”. If you’re familiar with the original Planet of the Apes, then you’ll recognize this as a set-up for a possible follow-up film that could tell the story of the original Planet of the Apes movie. Or alternatively, you could look at this film as a strict prequel to the original Planet of the Apes (and ignore the crappy 1970’s sequels) if you want to! At least, you can until a sequel is announced…
The fact that this movie manages to seem so simple and be paced so well, but also have a great deal of depth with regards to the non-human characters and expanded universe in which it takes place helps (in my opinion) to solidify it as a very smart science fiction movie that does what science fiction does best.