I will admit to never thinking much of the Planet of the Apes franchise. As a kid, I remember seeing the original movies on the Disney Channel late at night and wondering why Charlton Heston was so mad at those guys dressed in silly ape costumes. His infamous line – “get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape” – seemed more hilarious than angry. All of the campiness that was Planet of the Apes was best summed up in an episode of The Simpsons, where actor Troy McClure takes part in an Apes musical: “Oh, my god! I was wrong! It was earth all along!” Tim Burton’s 2001 remake may have had better special effects, but the make-up and costumers were still there.
Naturally, I was a bit skeptical about a prequel. Despite its silly title, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as good as a summer blockbuster can get. It’s reverent to its original source material, without being bogged down by it. And unlike other prequels, it is open-ended enough that it could actually exist as its own movie. And thankfully, the apes are digitized. So they are more apes with human elements, rather than vice-versa.
James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a scientist obsessed with trying to cure his father (John Lithgow) from Alzheimer’s disease, a formula he tested on chimps. When the first experiment goes wrong, Will adopts a baby chimp (who he later dubs “Caesar” played by Andy Serkis in digitized form) that has genetically inherited the formula. Caesar’s intelligence grows at an accelerated rate, even rivaling humans his own age. Without giving too much away, it is ultimately Caesar who leads the ape rebellion.
Whatever you may think of Franco, it’s a nice reversal to see him play someone so sincere. Freida Pinto plays his girlfriend, Caroline whose only real role is to show that Will has interest in something else other than Caesar and curing his father. Tom Felton (of Harry Potter fame) is a kick as an angry kid working in the animal impound. Felton even gets Heston’s immortal dirty ape line in a hilarious moment.
But the star of the show is Serkis as Caesar. You actually believe that he is a real ape. To watch Caesar transform from Will’s friend/pet to revolutionary leader is a thing to behold. Unlike the original movies, the apes have no speech, so Caesar’s command over them is even more convincing and menacing. At the same time, if this movie were not a re-boot, Serkis’ performance would also generate a lot of sympathy in Caesar’s and his friends’ plight. But since many already know where this ultimately ends, you’re left wondering if you should actually root for them as they destroy half of San Francisco.
If you’re looking for action, the movie also has plenty of that. Unlike other action movies of the summer, the action actually feels as if there is something at stake. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, might not be as revolutionary as Caesar’s revolt, but sometimes summer movies don’t have to be in order to be enjoyable.