One does not tread lightly into the Planet of the Apes franchise. It started with a very popular science fiction novel from Pierre Boulle in 1963, but it was the big-budget 1968 film adaptation (and its staggering surprise ending) that launched the property into the status of elite modern sci-fi. The film version was so popular it earned four sequels (Beneath, Escape, Conquest, and Battle), a pair of TV series (one live-action, one animated), an ill-fated 2001 remake, and the sort of long-standing and ardent fan support that only a true classic can earn.
So when we learned that 20th Century Fox was about to dust the property off and present a prequel explaining why (and how) our planet became overrun with super-intelligent apes -- we the old-school fans felt a small dash of skepticism. Actually, not a small dash. It was a huge torrent of outright cynicism. In a movie landscape that's become inundanted with sequels, prequels, remakes, and reboots, it's very easy to become cynical when yet another example comes lurching into the multiplexes. But here's the good news, and it's probably the single most exciting thing about writing about film for a living:
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not only a worthy addition to the franchise... not only is it a brilliant throwback to an era (the 1970s) when sci-fi films were allowed to try crazy things, and not only is it one of the best films of the year. It's also the first film since the original Planet of the Apes to do justice to Boulle's brilliant ideas (The older sequels are solid enough, but this new one is truly something special). Against all regular odds, despite the fact that very few "popcorn" flicks manage to transcend that designation, and contrary to what we've come to expect from reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels -- Rise of the Planet of the Apes is precisely what fans deserve: smart, dark, intense, intelligent science fiction that takes the most important and beloved parts of Planet of the Apes, and distills them into a fantastic flick that will appeal to newcomers and hardcore Apes aficionados in equal measure.
The screenplay is ten times better than most "tentpole" releases, but the gist is pretty basic: Dr. Will Rodman is a few tests away from curing Alzheimer's Disease, but after a horrific breakdown in primate security, the investors have bailed on the project. Borrowing a page from the real-life Project Nim, Dr. Rodman takes an infant chimp home with him, only to discover that the beast is not only staggeringly intelligent, but all sorts of intuitive: this is a primate that can bridge the gap between ape and human. The doctor's dad (an excellent John Lithgow) suffers from debilitating brain fugues, but Will's serum fixes them right up -- for the time being. Science can only go so far -- once the chimp Caesar gets a taste of what "humanity" is like ... there's no going back to primal urges.
A neighborhood tragedy sees Caesar remanded to an unpleasant primate "shelter," and that's when a crucial revelation takes place: what happens when an over-intelligent ape is abused by some under-intelligent human beings? If you've seen the original Planet of the Apes, then you already (pretty much) know how Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends -- but countless kudos and congratulations are due to director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver: they've found a way to tell the "pre-" story without mucking anything up. On the contrary, this new Apes is both packed with homages and references to the original movie, but (much more importantly) it forges ahead with a fresh new mythology that will give the loyal fans lots of things to be excited about.
Happily content to be a simple old "sci-fi throwback" piece, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is actually quite a few things at once: a Frankenstein tale, an action film, a prison escape epic, and a thoughtful rumination on the relative inhumanity of humans. It's smart and sad, exciting and epic, tragic and terrifying. The film presents special effects that are virtually seamless, a strong cast that seems truly excited about digging into something with a modicum of intelligence, a ton of clever touches (both subtle and obvious) that show respect for the source material while exhibiting a powerful sense of confidence in its own right, a fantastic score, and more geeky little assets than one film review should try to cover.
In other words, this is the Apes equivalent of that well-adored Star Trek reboot from a few years back. It's also one of the best films of the summer and, quite possibly, the best sci-fi film of 2011. Thanks to Fox and their filmmakers for approaching this project the right way. Anything with "Apes" on the box is sure to earn some coin, but these folks did what we film critics pray for all the time: reboot something as if it actually deserves the treatment. This is a fantastic film.