I didn’t go into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” thinking I’d be scared witless. I mean, this was just supposed to be another entry in the venerable series that has been deeply rooted in both science fiction and fantasy. In the original, it’s never really touched upon how our planet became inhabited by our genetic siblings. But about half-way through, I realized this wasn’t just an extension of the Charlton Heston original. This was much scarier.
Let’s back up. I bet you’re wondering how this film could provide me with endless sleepless nights. Let me say there’s only one type of film that scares me…and it doesn’t contain characters wearing hockey masks or wielding a glove made of knives. End-of-the-world dystopian thrillers are what do it for me. You know…zombies. Infectious disease flicks. “Self-aware” machines. Those things really scare me because they place a microscope on the human soul and how it behaves in the most realistically spooky situations.
But I didn’t expect that walking into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” I figured this would be one final popcorn-movie hurrah before I head back to school following a rather bland summer at the movies. What you’ll find while watching “Rise” is a wholly engrossing and thoughtful thriller that re-writes the entire series and creates a plausible jump-off point for the classic film series.
Fascinatingly odd James Franco leads as scientist Will Rodman. He’s developing a cure for Alzheimer’s. His work is personal, though, as his father (played by the in-fine-form John Lithgow) suffers from early-onset Alzheimer’s. We understand his motivation and his frustration.
Enter the apes. Or, rather, one ape in particular. Played ingeniously by Andy Serkis (he of Gollum/”Lord of the Rings” and “King Kong” fame), we are sucked into the world of Caesar, a baby ape left behind in the lab after countless apes are slaughtered at the beginning of the movie following a failed trial of an early Alzheimer’s drug. Franco takes his work home with him and Caesar soon becomes one of the family and we track his progress over a span of five years.
Meanwhile, Franco is still plugging away at the lab and he’s come upon a virus that seems to cure Alzheimer’s. Before telling his boss, he treats his father with the virus over a period of several years. His father takes to it and the disease doesn’t just REGRESS, but it makes his senses more acute. It improves his condition and actually seems to de-age him.
The virus soon wears out and Lithgow reverts back to a life of Alzheimer’s. He sneaks out of the house one day and attempts to steal a luxury car. The owner of the car becomes enraged and verbally attacks Lithgow. While observing from an upstairs window, Caesar becomes enraged at seeing the attack on his “granddad.” He escapes and viciously attacks the man assaulting Lithgow. Caesar is then taken into custody and placed with other primates. Caesar begins to bond with “his kind” and eventually rejects Franco. Caesar escapes the facility one night and returns home. He steals several vials of the airborne strain used to treat Lithgow. He releases it among the other primate and he’s suddenly got an army of primates.
One doesn’t need to provide a narrative to see where this is going. Needless to say, the apes get out. Where the film gets particularly creepy – and amazingly effective for me – is how it portends the end of humanity. It’s not realistic to think that a few dozen apes are going to bring about the demise of all humans. No, there is much more there.
What makes “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” so great is that it refuses to dumb itself down for an explosion-hungry public. Relatively speaking, the film doesn’t contain much action until the final third. The narrative is so steady and engaging that the film moves at a breathless pace. This is the anti-“Transformer,” a film that wallows in its own bombastic ridiculousness.
Director Rupert Wyatt has reignited a once-dead franchise. This film has the potential to reinvigorate a series that couldn’t even be revived by the great Tim Burton a decade ago. As long as future series entries put the story and characters first and don’t succumb to action-grubbing public, then I foresee a very worthwhile franchise.