Of the many geeky enthusiasms of my boyhood, that for the Planet of the Apes movies was second in intensity only to Star Trek. So despite the disappointment I, like many fans, felt over Tim Burton’s 2001 version of POTA, I was still childishly excited about the new film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which opens today. This time, I wasn’t disappointed.
Burton really wasn’t the man for Planet of the Apes. His handsomely-produced version was poorly-scripted & lacking in suspense, but its flatness ran deeper than that—put bluntly, Burton was just too nice, his vision too free of the anger & reactionary bitterness that powered the original Apes movies. His POTA was all shapeless whimsy.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t a sequel to Burton’s film; it’s basically a re-thinking of the fourth film, 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which we’re shown how the simian set overthrows Homo Sapiens as the dominant sentient primate. As in Conquest, the script of Rise, credited to director Rupert Wyatt & Amanda Silver, depicts the political awakening of a chimpanzee named Caesar, here a lab animal with a brain modified by a drug intended to cure Alzheimer’s disease.
After the pharmaceutical corporation causes the death of his mother, Caesar is surreptitiously raised in the comfortable suburban San Francisco home of the scientist (James Franco) heading the project, who soon sees that he’s got a superchimp on his hands. But misfortune strikes, & Caesar ends up in hellhole primate shelter, run by a jerk (Brian Cox) with an ape-hating, sadistic son (Tom Felton). It’s here that Caesar becomes a sort of Chimp Guevara, uniting his fellow apes (except for gibbons; they don’t seem to be included) against the lousy human bastards.
As with the old films, & for that matter with King Kong, the subtext of white racial paranoia in all this is so feverish that it can barely be called subtextual. But the ugliness implicit in it is offset by a generous side: On another, lightly subversive level, the Apes movies are underdog stories—or under-ape stories, if you prefer—& every kid I know always rooted for the apes to prevail. In Rise, Wyatt stages a fine, rousing finale, a showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge between the liberated superapes & the California Highway Patrol that’s highly satisfying.
If this synopsis makes you giggle, be assured the movie will too (though it’s too full of cruelty to animals for most younger kids). Wyatt doesn’t take the material any more seriously than is necessary to avoid overt camp, & the film is full of in-jokes & bleak comedy, including a running gag involving the scientist’s hapless next-door neighbor that’s really nasty. James Franco’s charisma continues to elude me, but that’s OK here, & his glumness is compensated for by John Lithgow, touching as his dementia-afflicted father, & even more so by Andy Serkis, who “plays” Caesar behind the CGI. The bright-eyed, calmly incredulous, oh-no-they-didn’t anger that registers on this Everychimp’s face is deeply funny.
Rise doesn’t quite offer anything indelibly magical, like the first appearance of the apes in the original film, or Charlton Heston’s discovery of Lady Liberty. It’s too blunt & straightforward to be a fantasy classic; it crosses its I’s & dots its T’s too thoroughly. That, I suppose, is the downside of not having a Tim Burton-ish sensibility behind the camera. But it’s worth it in this case—the film is silly, but it works. It works the way, say, a good political cartoon works, making you laugh & cringe at the same time.