It didn’t come until the tail end, but in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the summer finally got its first taste of Nolan. For all the lip service that’s paid to the idea of “darker, edgier” action films in Hollywood, few movies have had the courage to follow through on those promises. Rise is not only the darkest, most heavily thematic action film of the summer, but as director Rupert Wyatt promised, it achieves what Batman Begins set out to do: It brings in a new audience while also satisfying existing fans of the Apes franchise, at least those who aren’t stubbornly resistant to the idea of a film that only plants the seeds to the animal-vs.-man themes that would dominate the ‘68 franchise. It’s also the rare origins movie that’s actually worth a damn.
Incorporating some elements of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Rise nevertheless is an original movie that acts as a prequel to the 1968 film (and disrupts the continuity of the series). It’s set in the not-too-distant future, a time when man is embarking on its first flight to Mars, and where a genetic scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Tested on apes first, the cure not only regenerates brain cells, it makes the subject smarter, as we find out with Chimp #9. Because of a heightened protective instinct, however, Chimp #9 meets her maker, but not before leaving behind her offspring, Ceasar, who had the cure passed along to him genetically.
Rodman ends up taking Ceasar home and raising him, less as a pet and more as a child, as Ceasar displays more intelligence than similarly-aged children. Rodman also sneaks out vials of the Alzheimer’s cure — which had not yet been tested on humans — to administer to his father, resulting in a miraculous recovery. All is well until years later, when Ceasar’s protective instincts are triggered and he assaults a man. He’s put into court-ordered captivity along with dozens of other apes (and a vicious gorilla) and it is there — where Ceasar is pitted against his tormenting captors — that the stage is set for events that would unfold and ultimately lead to the situation we are met with in Planet of the Apes.
Besides heavier themes and the foreboding nature of the film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes also shares its rating with The Dark Knight. Both are PG-13 films that play like R-rated action movies, not because of language or violence, but because the level of tension and apprehension feels positively adult. The fear of violence that pervades Apes is far more unsettling than any amount of blood. Moreover, the fact that Rise is a prequel also works to its advantage: Ceasar is initially a playful, loving ape, but because you know where the events will ultimately lead, the anticipation of that turning point weighs heavy, keeping us edgy and anxious.
The real star of Rise, of course, are the apes, Ceasar in particular. The CGI is astounding, even for someone who slumbers in the anti-CGI camp. The special effects are simply captivating; you can feel every bit of sadness and love and hate in just the eyes of these computer creations. The viewer rarely gets the sense that these animals were created on a Mac. It hardly needs be said, either, that Serkis — as Ceasar — is phenomenal, perhaps the most fully-dimensional character of the blockbuster season despite the two strikes working against him: He’s both computer animated and a goddamn animal.
Their human counterparts don’t perform as well, but then, it’s hard to measure up to the magnificent CGI. Franco is in stoic Oscar-hosting mode, and though he’s onscreen for most of the film, you never develop much feeling for his character, even less so for his girlfriend (Freida Pinto), who is asked of very little. John Lithgow, as the Alzheimer’s afflicted father, fares better, but the only human character you feel much for is one of the evil captors, played by Tom Felton. That feeling is spite. Pure fucking hate. Felton is actually not a very good actor, yet he’s easy to dislike, not just because of what he does to the apes, but because he’s like a walking sneer that you want to wipe off the face of the Earth.
Granted, Rise is packed full of stock characters (an evil big pharma guy, for instance), and the script is at times wobbly and creaks during a middle patch. I’m also not sure how Rupert Wyatt — whose only film of note was the decent-but-not-spectacular prison escape flick, The Escapist — landed the director’s gig, but he certainly knows how to bring a CGI-animal to life. He also does an impeccable job with the action sequences, which are impressively eye-popping but never excessive.
The themes don’t resonate as loudly as those in the original Planet of the Apes, and the moral is muddled and unclear. Yet, Wyatt manages to salvage the franchise wreckage that Tim Burton left behind with his earlier remake and give new life to a series of films for which this generation has never had much affection. Indeeed, for all the faults with Rick Jaffa’s screenplay, the awkward title, and some of the uninspired acting on display, it’s the Apes that truly do rise above in the prequel, elevating the film to easily the best — and darkest — blockbuster action flick of the summer.