As far as summer blockbusters go, this film probably represents the tail end of Hollywood’s output for 2011 (late August tends to be post-blockbuster season and sees the beginning of the fall horror-movie-release craze), and what do you know, they really did save the best for last.
I suppose more superlatives are hardly in order at this point for Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, a film that breathes a limitless amount of new life into a franchise that audiences and critics alike had given up fro dead after Tim Burton’s crack at it in 2001. But here’s where irony comes into play — while Burton’s film is remembered at this point as more or less and absolute bust, it was actually pretty decently-received by folks at the time, and made an absolute boatload of money. Creatively, though, it felt like something of a dead-end — more a tribute to a once-great series than a springboard for its future. And so, while this latest revamp/rethink probably won’t make anywhere near the money of the 2001 flick (and its budget was somewhat smaller as well), it does in fact provide plenty in terms of a “where do we go from here?” factor, and its more-than-respectable performance at the box office pretty much ensure that there will, in fact, be a “fom here” for us to “go” to, if you catch my drift.
As far as prequels/re-imaginings go, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have hit on something of a genius idea to form the core of this one — rather than set things in the far-flung, postapocalyptic future, we’re looking at the present day here, and it’s man’s hubris, desperation, and greed that provide the springboard for the rise of intelligent apes rather than nuclear annihilation. Biochemist Will Rodman (James Franco) just wants to create a drug that will cure Alzheimer’s so he can help his father who is struggling with the disease (John Lithgow) get his life back. Ruthless big pharma tycoon Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) just wants to make a boatload of money. Will’s lady-love, Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto) just ants to see that the ape, Caesar, that they’ve injected with Will’s new brain-boosting serum is cared for. And once Caesar gets an understanding of what he’s capable of, and how rotten us human are, he just wants some other apes to get smart like him so he can have some company and they can find some sort of way to fit into the world.
It’ll all end in a massive ape attack on San Francisco, of course, but really revenge isn’t even on Caesar’s radar screen until he and his fellow apes are tortured and abused at the hands of John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sons at the sadistic “animal shelter” they run. And even as he readies his newly-intelligent ape army for conquest, Caesar maintains an amazing degree of love for Will, whose relationship with his super-ape is at the core of this film.
And speaking of Caesar — well, the combination of actor Andy Serkis (of Lord Of The Rings fame) and the WETA digital effects team are the real star of the show here, aren’t they? Once again, as he did when bringing Smeagol to life in Peter Jackson’s epic, it’s Serkis’ expressive face that’s called upon to do all the heavy lifting here, while the WETA folks extrapolate his cranial emoting onto the digital template that becomes the most “realistic” digital ape in movie history. I’m not sure what category you’d put his performance here into, but if Hollywood can figure out a way to nominate Zoe Saldana for her work as a digital stand-in on Avatar for an Oscar, they should do the same for Serkis here. Caesar will by turns capture and break the heart of even the most confirmed cynic (like yours truly). Granted, all the actors here turn in solid performances (Lithgow in particular deserves special recognition for his work), this movie really is Caesar’s story all the way, and its success completely hinges on Serkis and WTA. to say they deliver in spades is an understatement of the highest order of magnitude.
My last piece of admittedly-effusive praise goes once again to the screenwriters — it’s not until the very end that they deliver their most solid punch as far as genius-premise-work goes, when they reveal that the very same drug that gives the apes intelligence spreads a plague that wipes out most of humanity. So while the lingering question for folks familiar with the original film series throughout is one of “okay, it”s obvious enough how the apes are gonna get smart here, but how do we get pushed out of the way?,” the answer turns out to be right there in front of us all along. Clever as shit stuff that is, my friends.
People are calling Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes “the thinking person’s blockbuster” for good reason. This is intelligent, morally challenging, highly imaginative, wonderfully-executed storytelling. It’s affecting, involving, entertaining, and thought-provoking stuff that engages the mind and the heart, and it’s the best thing to come out of the Hollywood blockbuster machine in at least a decade. If you’ve seen it already, go see it again, and if you haven’t, well, what are you waiting for?
Just when you — and, yes, I — think movie magic is probably well and truly dead and buried, along comes a flick like this to prove it’s still there, just forced into unwanted hibernation by Hollywood’s insistence on gutless lowest-common-denominator-appealing crap at all costs. If anything, let’s hope the lesson the studios learn from the success of Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is that they can stop selling the intelligence of their collective audience short and deliver us some truly remarkable product and still make a ton of money in the process. We’re talking with our dollars, and the message that this movie’s success is delivering is loud and clear — now we’ll just have to sit back and wait to see if Hollywood is listening.