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Great 'Apes' Reinvents the Franchise

A wonder of late summer popcorn season speculation, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of throwback that fans of science fiction love.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, Tom Felton, David Hewlett, Chelah Horsdal, Brian Cox, John Lithgow
Distributor: 20th Century Fox
US Release Date: 2011-08-05

We all have close connections to our pets. We consider them people, part of the family, and as important to our life as food and shelter. Sure, some take their affection to extremes, but for the most part, you couldn't imagine being forcibly removed from your favorite dog or cat. You've shed a tear when the vet had bad news, and you've bristled at the far too frequent news reports that have local degenerates abusing animals for their own warped ideals. It's through this new age-ish filter that Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrives. Instead of arguing for all the race rioting civil claims of the '60s (like the original Charlton Heston film) or the increasing cold war/nuclear proliferation intrusion of the '70s (the sequels), the latest attempt to reboot the lagging franchise finds the filmmakers mining material much closer to home for most viewers, and hitting a home run in the process.

Let's face it, any movie which makes its main premise center around the rise and revolt of intelligent simians is starting off at a disadvantage. The 1968 classic had American astronauts land on a remote alien planet, only to discover that they had actually crashed on Earth, millions of years in the future. In that film, racism and minority issues were front and center, with allusions to the Holocaust and fascism thrown in for good measure. There was even theological elements tossed in to reaffirm the oppressive nature of the Apes regime. Subsequent films dropped most of the message and continued on an attempted timeline, arguing for how our world circa the early '70s became a breeding ground for intelligent chimp discontent.

When Tim Burton was handed the reins of the 2001 remake, the most promising prospect revolved around the new make-up work by Oscar perennial Rick Baker. Avoiding the more caricaturist view of the Apes from three decades before, the artist created uncompromisingly detailed face appliances, rendering cast members such as Tim Roth, Helena Bonham Carter, and Paul Giamatti virtually unrecognizable. Instead, we saw the identifiable results of evolution run amuck... except, this was not Earth. It was an alien world, a place where one of Mark Wahlberg's chimp space pilots crash lands... and then, well, um... repopulates. In fact, trying to type the fact patter for this film is like an exercise in slight surrealism. Even the ending, which saw the Lincoln Memorial turned into a monkey mockery (ala the first film's Statue of Liberty reveal), was crazily confusing.

The reviews were awful. No one wanted a sequel, and the studio sensing outrage among the faithful, promised to make a "serious" Apes movie somewhere down the line. Rumored revamps included another look at a well-publicized Oliver Stone attempt (which was actually greenlit before Burton's version), which many thought would re-up the pro-political aspects of the series. Instead, the JFK genius wanted to deal with ancient mythology, cryogenically frozen 'Vedic' apes, and eventually, a time travel return to the past to keep these intelligent animals from destroying mankind all together. As with all multimillion dollar gambles, the suits blinked, and months of pre-production were tossed (only Baker and his approach remained).

This left another Apes in limbo, especially in light of the continuous drubbing Burton's version achieved. It was perhaps one of the first fiery Internet debate topics, a clash between cult completists and those who knew a steaming pile of monkey dung when they saw it. Even today, you'll find some who will rationalize the 2001 reboot as "accomplished" and "perfect cheesy sci-fi." Yet those who remember the series with fondness found said suggestions ludicrous. They wanted a better, more profound statement from their evolved mammal material. Now, after what seems like an eternity, Rise has arrived to answer their prayers.

As a movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes works on several levels. Initially, the story focuses on James Franco and his fervent desire to cure Alzheimer's. Unlike other scientists who play God, there is an underlying, more personal reason for his research: his father, a gifted musician, is slowly dying from the disease. Desperate to do anything to find an answer, our hero takes risks with an experimental drug. Naturally, the test subjects - a group of standard issue apes - fail to fully respond. When one finally does, and then does something oddly irrational, it looks like a dead end. Instead, it opens up a new angle and we shift to the story of Caesar, a baby ape that Franco takes home to raise himself. For the next 30 minutes or so, we get the hardships and the heartstrings of such unplanned parenting.

Indeed, the opening paragraph signals what Rise of the Planet of the Apes will eventually be milking. It will combine the possibility of a human like/inhuman pet which becomes immersed in the full family unit with a later look at animal rights/animal testing to trigger a series of sentiments in the viewer. The main focus here is to make Caesar -- actor Andy Serkis rendered realistically via WETA's motion capture process -- a full fledged character, to create sympathy and empathy for his situation, and to actually root for his eventual rejection of mankind and the desire to rebel. After all, he is as smart - or smarter - than those who oppressive him. Sure, fledgling filmmaker Rupert Wyatt lays on the villainous aspects of the narrative a bit too thickly, but for the most part, our creature earns his emotions, making us care deeply in the process.

Even better, the film strives to give a serious context to how apes could (and apparently, will) take over the world one day. We get artificially smartened animals, left to their own devices, as the planet is slowly consumed by a rising pandemic. Indeed, the biggest buffer to the storyline being taken seriously is how humanity -- a far more advanced and aggressive species -- can leave Earth to their evolutionary inferiors without much of a fight. While a last act action scene on the Golden Gate Bridge insinuates the odds, it's the unexpected side effects of the Alzheimer's cure which cements the situation. One instantly begins to free associate potential sequels, follow-ups which see the last vestiges of man struggling to survive, using any means necessary to stop the inevitable ape overthrow.

A wonder of late Summer popcorn season speculation, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the kind of throwback that fans of science fiction love. It's serious without being preachy, visionary without going wholly overboard. Best of all, it avoids the entire "Star Warring" of the genre, a conceit that commands a certain sustained level of illogical eye candy over things like ideas or invention. Back when the original ruled the box office, audiences expected a certain level of intelligence in their sci-fi. By reimagining the premise, by giving us a plausible reason for the eventuality, Rise reinvents the franchise, and as a result, our faith in the cinematic format it's founded on.

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