I love you, Desmond Morris: Rise of the Planet of the Apes ***1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on August 13, 2011)

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The original 1968  film The Planet of the Apes had a lot going for it. It was based on an acclaimed sci-fi novel  by Pierre Boulle (whose semi-autobiographical debut, The Bridge on the River Kwai, had been adapted into a blockbuster film). It was helmed by Franklin J. Schaffner (Patton, Papillon ,The Boys from Brazil). It had a smart script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling. And, of course, it starred Charlton Heston, at his hammy apex (“God DAMN you ALL to HELL!!”).

Most notably, it opened 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  film-goers expectations for science-fiction movies; each was groundbreaking in its own unique fashion.

The film also had one of the best “endings” ever; a classic “Big Reveal” (drenched in Serling’s signature sense of irony) that still delivers chills. “They” could have left it right there. Granted,  the end also had Charlton Heston riding off into the proverbial sunset with a hot brunette,  implying it wasn’t over yet, but lots of films end with the hero riding into the sunset; not all beg for a sequel. But Planet of the Apes turned out to be a box office smash, and once Hollywood studio execs smell the money…well, you know. So in 1970 we were treated to Beneath the Planet of the Apes; while watchable, it was a few steps “beneath” its predecessor…literally and figuratively.

Still, it did well, inspiring yet another sequel-Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), which was silly but kind of fun-although it set up a time travel paradox that makes your head explode (it’s a sequel and a prequel!).  Conquest for the Planet of the Apes (1972) and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973) were no more than cheesy 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…which likely accounts for the decade of silence.

To be honest, I had absolutely no idea  another attempt was being made to recharge the franchise until I began noticing TV trailers for Rise of the Planet of the Apes a few weeks ago (was it a state secret or something?). I hadn’t been invited to a press screening (harrumph).

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 better than I had expected, but to be one of the better sci-fi flicks in recent memory.

If you can get past James Franco a bit miscast as a genetic engineer-you’ll be good to go (hey-I had no problem accepting Raquel Welch as a scientist in Fantastic Voyage-so there you are). Franco is Will Rodman, a San Francisco-based researcher working on a serum to reverse the ravages of Alzheimer’s. His quest is not only professional, but personal-his father (John Lithgow, in a poignant performance) has the disease. Will’s ‘star’ test subject is a female lab chimp called Bright Eyes (ape scientist Kim Hunter’s moniker for her human “subject” Heston in the 1968 film-first of many references).

Bright Eyes has undergone a metamorphosis after being injected with the experimental serum-an 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 family member, communicating with Will via sign language.  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.

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. Caesar is picked up by Animal Control and taken to a state-run “halfway house” for impounded simians (more like a prison), lorded over by a duplicitous “warden” (Brian Cox) and his evil, creepy son (Tom Felton).

At this point, the narrative switches from Flowers for Algernon to more or less a “re-imagining” of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which the adult Caesar spearheads a Spartacus-style revolt against The Man (with homage to Jules Dassin’s 1947 prison noir Brute Force…or maybe I’ve seen too many movies). Wyatt may even be borrowing from his own 2008 prison drama, The Escapist.

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 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 CGI creations (enhanced by 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? No, not exactly. But in relative terms, compared to the majority of films passing as “sci-fi” these days, this one hearkens back (in a good way) to the genre’s classic era-before it became all about the CGI and the big  production budgets. There was a time when sci-fi was about imagination, ideas and intelligent writing.

Conjuring up Mr. Serling again…considerThe Twilight Zone. Not a lot of budget on display; in fact most of the special effects are laughable by today’s standards. But the TV series had one quality that will never feel dated: great storytelling, something  sorely lacking in much Hollywood fare these days. Don’t get me wrong-I go to the movies to be “entertained” as much as the next schlub; I don’t mind an explosion here and there to keep me awake. But I enjoy a little exposition, as well. Isn’t that what separates us from the monkeys?

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