When the original Planet of the Apes remake was announced, I was a bit skeptical. Not because I’m some great lover of the originals (I’m not), or because of the usual knee-jerk reaction of, “Here we go again, another remake.” I was skeptical because it was a remake of a classic, famous movie, with Mark Walberg being cast as the main character. Now, don’t get me wrong, the man has talent, and has turned into a good actor (despite its dubious origins, his performance in “Rock Star” is quite strong). But it seemed an odd fit, and an odd time to remake the film or try and reboot the revered franchise. Still, my wife and I went and saw it in the theater, and though it was bereft of a lot of substance, it was an enjoyable popcorn sci-fi flick with enough B-movie fun to keep it interesting. The ending of the movie set up the possibility of a sequel, but it never materialized, presumably because the movie’s modest showing at the box office and rather lukewarm reviews probably scared away those who would otherwise have backed a second movie.
Fast forward 10 years later, and we have a pseudo-sequel, though in name only. Rather than continue with the reboot effort from 2001, 20th Century Fox wisely chose to simply “re-reboot” the franchise again. This time around, the plot is similar to that of the 1972 film “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” (the 4th film in the original saga), and based on how the plot plays out, it seems like a logical place to start.
The plot goes as follows: scientists playing with technologies they don’t fully understand use chimpanzees as the test subjects for a new drug that is supposed to improve mental function as a means of solving deteriorating mental state conditions like Alzheimer’s disease. In the process, one chimp who receives a particular iteration of the test drug begins to show signs of increased mental capacity, but after a lab accident where the ape appears to “go crazy” the project is scrapped. It is later discovered that the chimp “went ape” due to the fact that she had just had a baby and was protecting her offspring. Despite the order from the company’s top dog to put down all the apes after the project failure, the baby ends up the problem (then pet/companion) of head scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Will has a stake in the development of the drug because his dad, Charles (played well by John Lithgow), suffers from Alzheimer’s. Again, despite the order to destroy the experimental drug, Will takes several doses from the lab and uses it on his dad, which at first, gives Charles his mind (and life) back.
I'm not crazy after all!
Everything appears to be going well for Will – he meets a beautiful woman (played by Freida Pinto) who he quickly develops a romantic relationship with, and his dad is himself again with the help of the experimental drug. He convinces his boss to re-open development of the drug due to the results of his findings with Caesar (the baby chimp he took home). Things are not as they seem, as is always the case with these stories, and Charles starts to lose his grip on reality again, and when the full-grown chimp Caesar scares the life out of the neighbors and bites off the next-door neighbor’s finger to protect Charles, he is forced to live in a primate facility run by milquetoast John Landon (Brian Cox) until Will can find a way to convince the court to allow Caesar to return home. During his time in the facility, Caesar pines for home and is at first shunned by the other primates for having clothing and for being the “new guy” in the facility. The power structure quickly shifts when Caesar learns how to out-smart the other apes and exerts his newfound authority by gaining their trust. As his stay in the facility lengthens, he becomes disillusioned by it, and visits by Will and Caroline are met with less interest, and eventually he elects to stay in the facility when given the chance to leave when Will comes to pick him up after Charles’ death.
You left me in this dump, you jerk!
Meanwhile, the newly developed version of the retrovirus is found later to be deadly to humans when the primate expert hired by the scientific research firm dies after exposure to the gaseous form of it, and during his health decline he pays a visit to Will (who had since quit his job) to warn him of the effects the drug was having on him. He sneezes on Will’s neighbor Rodney McKay, er, Mr. Hunsiker (lovable jerk David Hewlett), which sets in motion the events that will trigger widespread transmission of the virus (now airborne) all over the world, since Mr. Hunsiker is an airline pilot.
When Caesar figures out how to escape the confines of the facility he returns home where he steals the latest iteration of the experimental drug out of Will’s refrigerator and uses it to boost the intelligence of all the other primates with the newly developed airborne retrovirus. This leads to him devising an escape plan for all the residents of the facility, which results in the death of Draco Malfoy, er, Dodge Landon (played by Tom Felton), who works there. Though this upsets Caesar, he forges ahead with his plan and all the primates escape under his leadership. They proceed across the golden gate bridge to a large forest where he had previously frolicked before the accident that caused his incarceration. The police are called out, but Caesar and friends are determined to get to this sanctuary, so they find ways to get around the glut of traffic on the bridge and cause plenty of damage along the way. Caesar is adamant in his leadership of the others that they not kill humans, though a few casualties always seem to happen. When the primates do eventually find the forest, their rampage ends, as it appears they are happy just being in their natural environment (or as natural as they are to find in San Francisco, anyway). Will catches up to them and asks Caesar to come home, and to his shock, Caesar speaks and tells Will that he’s already home. Will lets Caesar go and live with his new pals in the forest.
"I'm home, Mama. I mean, Will."
The effects in this movie are really well done – it’s often hard to tell when the primates in the movie are real, and when they are CG, though there are still spots where the CG is obvious. But as a whole, this movie highlights just how far the technology has come. James Franco is good as the lead, and delivers a surprisingly emotional performance; one I wasn’t sure he was capable of based solely on his role as Peter Parker’s best friend/nemesis in the recent Spider Man movies. John Lithgow is great as usual, and does double-duty as the crazy Alzheimer’s patient and Joe Normal when he is on the experimental drug. Frieda Pinto is lovely, and while the script doesn’t afford her much to work with, she gives a sincere performance. Felton plays a good American jerk as well as he plays a British one, and Brian Cox can still play a jerk with the best of them. Of course, David Hewlett is perhaps an even bigger jerk here than he was in Stargate Atlantis, if that’s possible. Andy Serkis played Caesar, though I’m not sure how much of that was voice-acting and how much actual physical work he did. I felt like the story was engaging, the plot was believable, given the nature of the previous “Apes” films, and the end of the movie set up nicely the possibility of multiple sequels based upon the transmission of the retrovirus and the possibility that apes all over the world would begin to gain intelligence and rise up against their human captors.
Here’s what I didn’t like. First, though the movie struck a good balance between caring people and non-caring people contrasted with good apes versus apes in it for only themselves, there was still a bit too much of that air of “animal rights”. This is highlighted by how the primates are treated by Felton’s character, how Brian Cox’s character doesn’t appear to care about the animals beyond the face-to-face interaction with Will, and how everyone appears to be scared or intimidated by Caesar when he bites off Hensiker’s finger. Contrast this with Caesar’s insistence that no humans be killed during the escape, and it’s all a bit too “tree hugger” at times. I think sometimes the Hollywood set tends to forget that animals are animals, and they’d eat you alive if they thought you were their only possibility of a last meal.
Despite this somewhat PC undertone in the film, my wife and I rather enjoyed it and look forward to what the possibility of a sequel might be. I’d give the film a solid 8 out of 10 for presentation, some action, a well-written script and solid cast, and overall good emotional and character development throughout the story line. If you’re looking for a late-summer blockbuster, or just a really good sci-fi film that won’t bowl you over with cheese factor, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” just might be your ticket.