“Planet of the Apes” is more highly regarded now than it was back in 1968. And even though the special effects and the make-up and the costuming may pale in comparison to what is available today, the “Apes” idea has endured and even grown in prominence. That’s why when the prequel, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” was announced it was met by fans with cautious optimism. Camps were divided. Was this just another Hollywood money grab or an opportunity to do something unique within the long used and abused sub-genre?
I’m pleased to report that the naysayers and pessimists are wrong! “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is one of the most literate science fiction action films in some time. It is a rare prequel that fits perfectly before the 43-year-old original that inspired it.
In “Rise,” James Franco plays brilliant scientist Will Rodman, who is searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s. He works for a well-funded corporation that values his work more for how it can pad profits than for how it can better society. Hints of evil corporate tinkering run underneath the story as Will’s work is driven by Wall Street concerns. But such stereotypical content, ever-present and overplayed in the films of James Cameron, for example, is treated subtly here.
Rodman’s chief motivations are deeply personal. His father, Charles (John Lithgow), was once a talented music teacher but now suffers from crippling Alzheimer’s. When Will’s presentation to the corporate board of directors goes horribly wrong, his work is shelved. But Will’s mission isn’t complete. And he decides to continue with human trials of his miracle drug starting with Charles.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” smartly tells us how the seemingly upside down world led by apes could have come about. Winking at the 1968 original, we get touches here and there that pay homage to the Charlton Heston film. And somehow, by playing everything straight and somber, these references don’t seem forced or too cute. “Rise” is a true prequel that understands the best science fiction cinema doesn’t rest on the effects but on the ideas and characters.
And the characters are for the most part well crafted. Certainly the cast could not have been better. Franco made a wise choice to step back into a mainstream film with this kind of narrative, because he’s not required to be an action hero. His Will Rodman is a thinking man, whose ambition is dangerous, more dangerous than anything the world may ever have seen. Around him is a cast of standouts. It is good to see Lithgow in a big film chewing on a role that really takes advantage of his ability to play a damaged soul. Getting the worst of things is “Harry Potter’s” Tom Felton, who plays a necessary but utterly one dimensional character who antagonizes Caesar, the ape that will play a key role in the rise of a new world.
And Caesar, the film’s most important character, is almost entirely generated in a computer. Using the finest motion capture technology available, the WETA team, who were responsible for fine work on “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy and “District 9,” created one very smart ape. The story follows Caesar’s development from his traumatic birth to his evolution into something between ape and human. Once he becomes older, he is played by Andy Serkis, who gave life and motion to Gollum in “Rings” and did fine work with another famous big ape in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong.”
It will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen “Rise” that Serkis may receive an acting nomination from the Academy for his work here. Not only does Caesar look real, but he takes on characteristics and mannerisms that are a unique blend of ape and human in the various stages of development. The transformation is uncanny and like nothing I’ve seen before. It makes you wonder what David Cronenberg would have done with Jeff Goldblum had these techniques been available when he made “The Fly.” The difference is that the personification in “Rise” is from ape to something approximating human, or as we learn in the film, the progression may be to some being that is greater than human.
Intriguing questions are introduced and sharply addressed within the action package that frames “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” But there’s more thinking and less action offered making it a special late summer entry. And the ideas alone that challenge you to think offer their own unique brand of special effects. The film is an answer to all the apologists that slammed critics for over-thinking movies like the “Transformers” threequel that’s dominated the season thus far. But only if audiences come out and support “Rise’s” kind of intelligent science fiction will we see more of it. Because like the shadowy corporate players that help usher in the nightmare given us back in 1968, Hollywood so often seems more interested in their bottom line than with making the world a better place.