Fellow moviegoers, do you find yourself feeling faintly annoyed by the overfranchised cinematic landscape of summer 2011 — a blockbuster season ruled by sequels and threequels and fourquels and prequels, by spin-offs and reboots and remakes and rip-offs, in which the most widely beloved film was a ”Part 8” that claimed to be a ”Part 2,” and in which the most quote-unquote ”original” project came embroidered with the kindergarten-ready title Cowboys & Aliens? Then you should know that, for better or for worse, all the essential moves in the film-franchise playbook come straight from one single source: The Planet of the Apes series, a fascinatingly overcomplicated cycle of films which has lasted for over 40 years.
The pretzel-logic narrative physics of the franchise would take hours to explain and years to understand — io9.com created a helpful chrono-map that helps a little bit — and can probably best be summed up by this hilariously mindbending sequence from Escape from the Planet of the Apes, in which a brilliant scientist attempts to explain time travel and fails spectacularly. Note: If you are easily hypnotized, do not watch this video.
Suffice it to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes — this weekend’s surprisingly not-terrible surprise box office champ — is simultaneously a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes, a reboot of the franchise’s entire timeline, and a semi-remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in which an intelligent ape named Caesar led a primate uprising against goony humans.
Rise begins in the jungle, with a cartload of chimpanzees frolicking the forests. The fun is quickly ruined by a blast of hunters — aren’t collective nouns fun? — who capture an adorable-looking chimpanzee. Flash-forward in time: The chimpanzee has developed super-smarts thanks to a new brain-expanding anti-Alzheimer’s drug. As a side effect, the ape’s eyes have also developed a pleasant glow. Her scientist wardens have given her the nickname ”Bright Eyes,” which proves decisively that primatologists love their early-00s emo music.
At this point, we meet the film’s main human character: Will Rodman, played by James Franco. Upon realizing that his Alzheimer’s cure has turned Bright Eyes into the smartest primate this side of Beppo the Super-Monkey, Will runs straight to a character who I will henceforth refer to as Evil Boss. Now there are three things you have to understand about Evil Boss:
1. He is always impeccably dressed.
2. He is played by David Oyelowo, the only actor in the film with a British accent.
3. Every line of dialogue he has in the film can be summed up thus: ”Money! Money! Money! I love money! Now can someone kill this adorable chimpanzee? I want to swim through my money, but first I need to grease myself up with the blood of an adorable animal.”
In short, he’s the second-most fun human character in the film. Will, conversely, is one of the worst scientists in human history. We see him explain his fantastic cure for Alzheimer’s to a group of investors. During his speech, the film gloriously crosscuts to Bright Eyes, who gets loose in the laboratory and goes on a rampage. It plays out kind of like this:
Will: As you can see from this glossy Power-Point presentation, Bright Eyes has become super-smart, while remaining fantastically lovable.
Chimp Handler: No Bright Eyes, no! Don’t kill me!
Will: We should put this cure on the market immediately.
Chimp Handler: She’s been driven insane by the cure!
Will: This plan can’t fail.
Chimp Handler: The plan is failing!
NEXT: Hail Caesar!
So Bright Eyes is unceremoniously killed by the security guards. Evil Boss tells the Chimp Handler to kill the other primates involved in the test. ”I run a business, not a petting zoo!” says Evil Boss, although he says that last line so prissily that you have to believe he probably spent a summer in high school working at the local petting zoo. Will discovers that Bright Eyes wasn’t freaking out because of drug-related madness; she was just protecting her adorable baby.
If you’re wondering how a chimpanzee involved in a multi-billion-dollar testing procedure somehow slipped her pregnancy past the array of scientists and handlers who presumably held her under 24-hour surveillance, then I think you’re missing the subtle point of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Because every single human character in the film is kind of awful at their job, you naturally find yourself rooting for the apes to rise, just so the earth can be rescued from the grabby claws of the human species. (This is, coincidentally, the same reason why the post-human Earth of Cars 2 has proved so appealing to a generation of nihilistic preschoolers.)
Will takes the baby ape to the home he shares with his father, who is suffering from dementia but has the rare fortune to be played by John Lithgow. Will is all set to take the chimp to the local chimp refuge, but he quickly notices that the li’l fella has inherited his mama’s smarts — not to mention her glowing eyes. Three years pass, and the chimp (now named Caesar) becomes a fun little fellow who swings through the household in elaborate special-effects sequences that feel a little bit like the web-swinging sequences in Spider-Man, but set entirely in one household. Will starts feeding his dad the anti-dementia formula, which is highly unethical and dramatically dangerous. But who cares? Praise Science!
Caesar dreams of exploring the outside world. Specifically, he dreams of riding a bike, just like the cool neighbor kids. (Since no dates are mentioned in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you have to imagine that the film takes place at some point in the distant past when kids still rode bikes.) He swings into the house next door, where he meets my absolute favorite human character in the film: The Beleaguered Neighbor (David Hewlett), who will spend the film suffering all manner of indignity before finally dooming the human race. In this first appearance, the Beleaguered Neighbor simple commits the awful crime of chasing away a frightening jungle animal, in an effort to protect his family. He will be punished for those good intentions.
NEXT: Hail, Female Character!
Caesar gets a boo-boo from his run-in with the Beleaguered Neighbor, so Will takes him to the local zoo, where he meets-cute with Freida Pinto. Now, Freida Pinto is one of the most rapturously gorgeous women on the face of the Earth, but her role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is essentially reduced to smiling, looking concerned, and mouthing awkward-exposition lines. But she is so incredibly beautiful, and Caesar positively insists that she take Will out on a date.
Five years later, Caesar has grown into a full-sized chimpanzee. But he’s feeling confused. Why is he so different from other chimps? Where did he come from? Will tells Caesar, ”I am your father,” which will certainly be the lowlight of the highlight reel in the faraway future when James Franco wins an Honorary Oscar. Will eventually relents and takes Caesar to his laboratory, where he essentially recaps the first half-hour of the movie.
At this point, the Alzheimer’s medication is beginning to wear off on Will’s father. Poor ol’ dad gets confused and tries to steal a local neighborhood car. Wouldn’t you know it, the car belongs to our old friend, the Beleaguered Neighbor. ”Hey, what are you doing?” he screams. ”I’m a pilot! I gotta get to the airport!” The Neighbor — who is merely trying to protect his professional career, and who apparently doesn’t have enough money to afford the exorbitant cab fare common to Northern California — pokes his finger casually into Lithgow’s chest. At which point Caesar flies into a rage, tackles the Beleaguered Neighbor halfway down the street, and bites his freaking finger off. Caesar, no! He’s a pilot! He’s gotta get to the airport!
After a quick trial, Caesar is sent to live in the local animal refuge, presided over by Brian Cox and Tom Felton. Cox played horrible villains in X-Men 2, Troy, The Bourne Supremacy, and Manhunter; Felton essayed the role of fascist bully Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter octet. Casting these two as father and son is so unsubtle, they might as well be wearing T-shirts that say ”I’m with Evil.”
Weirdly, though, Cox doesn’t have much to do in the film — he mostly hovers around the outskirts, twinkling his eyes occasionally. Felton, conversely, dominates the film’s midsection. Most reboots feature little Easter eggs that tie the film back to its forbears, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes the curious choice to throw all those Easter eggs into Felton’s basket. First, after Caesar discovers himself trapped in Ape prison, Felton gets the primates all riled up and screams, triumphantly, ”It’s a madhouse! A maaaaad hoouuuuse!” His weapon of choice is a fire hose, just like the prison guards in the original Apes film. Felton also notes that the main lady-ape is named Cornelia, a clear reference to the ape named Cornelius in Planet of the Apes (who was originally Caesar’s father, and wow, look at that, my nose is bleeding!)
NEXT: Stupid, stupid humans
Felton also gets to mutter another vintage Charlton Heston line. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. The second act of the film mostly leaves the world of humans behind for a close-up look at life in Ape jail. (My colleague Jeff Labrecque has already brilliantly compared this section to The Shawshank Redemption.) Curiously, this is also the most appealing part of the film: The wordless sequences in the Ape sanctuary, complete with lots of schoolyard bullying that slowly shades into full-on youth rebellion, feels a little bit like The 400 Blows retold with a cast of speechless chimpanzees, which if you want to understand the cultural evolution of the Western World in the last half-century is probably an indication that the computers should just take over already.
Meanwhile, back at Franco Labs, Will has managed to convince Evil Boss to start testing the anti-dementia drug on a new shrewdness of apes. Here’s how the convincing worked:
Will: Hey, remember that drug that failed almost a decade ago, when we both looked the same? Well, I used it on my dad, and it worked fine. Except that now it doesn’t work. I can haz research funding?
Evil Boss: That’s a terrible idea. Shoo.
Will: But we could make money, maybe?
Evil Boss: MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY MONEY!!! Do it! Experiment on anything! Do you want hobos? I can get you hobos! Oh, sorry, I didn’t mean to drool on you.
During the experiments, the Chimp Handler from earlier accidentally loses his surgical mask and gets exposed to the anti-dementia drug — which, again, serves as further proof that all of humanity is useless. The Chimp Handler starts developing a nasty bloody nose, and tries to visit Will at home. In the process, he runs afoul of our old friend, the Beleaguered Nine-Fingered Neighbor. Here’s how their interaction goes.
BN-FN: What are you doing here? This is my house! Good lord, doesn’t anyone still believe in the sanctity of a man’s house?
Chimp Handler: [projectile-vomits blood all over the Neighbor]
BN-FN: There is no god.
Chimp Handler: [projectile-vomits, nods his head]
Meanwhile, back at Casa de la Ape, Caesar slowly but surely starts to build up his ape army. First, he befriends an Orangutan named Buck. (They both speak sign language, and their scenes are subtitled, which is so cheesy that it veers back from being stupid to being kind of hilarious. Hey, it’s August.) Then, he frees the local Gorilla, a classic badass-with-a-heart-of-gold type with the gunslinger moniker named Buck. With the gorilla’s help, he earns the subservience of a local bully named Rocket. Then he gives everyone a cookie, because Caesar believes in everyone getting along. But he still has a fundamental problem: As Buck notes sagely, ”Apes stupid.”
Next: Smart, smart apes
So Caesar escapes into the night. He somehow finds his way back to Will’s house, he steals a couple cans of Smart Juice out of the refrigerator. (Notice: Will keeps cans of a potential trillion-dollar formula inside of his refrigerator, right next to his beer. Start debating: Is Rise of the Planet of the Apes a stealth spin-off of Idiocracy?) He spreads the Smart Gas throughout the ape sanctuary. The sequence that follows — which shows all the imprisoned apes waking up, and suddenly experiencing a giant leap in evolutionary consciousness — is one of the most exciting scenes in the film.
It’s also immediately followed by the most exciting sequence in the film. Caesar gets free in the ape sanctuary. Evil Tom Felton tries to Taser him into submission, but Caesar grabs his arm. ”Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” screams Evil Tom Felton, and you could argue that that was just a lame bit of fan service, but the complete ideological distance between how Heston proclaimed that line in the original and how Felton petulantly mutters that line in Rise is so vast that you almost want to cry as you realize that a race of Heston-esque superhumans has devolved into a race of Felton-esque brats. And then, Caesar totally brings the house down by saying his first word: ”No!”
Let’s pause here to all praise Andy Serkis, by the way, who only earned an ”And?” credit for his work on this film. I would actually argue that Serkis’ work here is even more impressive than his Gollum or his King Kong. For one thing, those films featured elaborate fantasy worlds and massive casts of interesting characters — Rise is basically all Caesar, all the time. For another thing, his characters in those movies were a bit more easily reducible to recognizable storylines: Gollum slowly descended into madness and betrayal, while King Kong did it all for love. Caesar, though, goes from being a lovable whiz kid to a revolutionary leader. It’s like seeing Linus from Peanuts transform into Che Guevara. Props to Serkis (and the engineers at WETA Digital) for pulling off the transformation.
Felton gets killed, although it’s not technically the apes’ fault: Caesar just wanted to spray him, but Felton turned on his Taser at just the wrong moment. This is, I think, the one disappointing part of the film, and further evidence that the PG-13 is causing an encroaching strain of lameness to spread to our blockbuster films. The apes rampage across San Francisco, but somehow, their rampage is essentially bloodless: Whenever one ape even comes close to killing a human, Caesar will say his favorite word again (”No!”), and they’re off. Thus, the apes’ ”Rise” is essentially bloodless.
Next: Do you want a prequel-sequel to this remake-reboot?
Still, the final action sequence — a face-off on the Golden Gate Bridge — is thrilling, with the apes hiding behind a bus and swinging across the various levels of the bridge. They handily defeat the best and brightest of the SFPD. Buck the Gorilla sacrifices himself to take down a helicopter, which happens to be carrying Evil Boss, who is so rich that even the policemen follow his orders. Buck the Gorilla lives just long enough die a noble death; Evil Boss lives just long enough to beg Caesar to save him. Caesar refuses, and lets one of his subordinates knock the helicopter off the bridge. I couldn’t hear what Evil Boss screamed on the way down, because my entire theater was simultaneously clapping and laughing, but I would imagine his last words were, ”Please, burn my money so it can meet me in the afterlife!”
At this point, Will suddenly re-enters the film long enough to ask Caesar to come home. Caesar holds his human father close and whispers in his ear: ”Caesar. Is. Home.” Will: ”Alrighty then!” So Caesar leads his rebel-group of apes into the Muir woods, where they all looked longingly at San Francisco, perhaps with big plans to create their own start-up or drink some Fernet Branca.
The important thing to note here is: Despite what the previews indicate, the apes do not, at any point, want to overthrow humanity. Unfortunately, thanks to worst-scientist-ever Will, the Earth is doomed. We suddenly catch up with our old friend, the Beleaguered Nine-Fingered Neighbor, who can add a bloody nose to the list of Job-like troubles facing him. In the credits, we track the Neighbor’s journey across the Earth. Actually, I just realized something funny. The Beleaguered Nine-Fingered Bloody-Nosed Neighbor still goes to work, despite having only nine fingers and a nasty illness, and then works the long hours of an airline pilot. So, when you think about it, he is literally the last human left in the worst of Rise of the Planet of the Apes who is actually good at his job. And for all his troubles, he receives the nasty Franco Virus from the Ape Handler’s blood vomit, spreads said virus all across the world, and inadvertently destroys the entire human race! So, technically, the Neighbor is both the most heroic and most villainous character in the film. Ambiguity!
There was a recurring mini-subplot in the film about a mission to Mars that apparently got lost in space — which seems like an embedded reference to the original Apes, and could also be a set-up for a post-apocalyptic sequel. Fellow moviegoers, who would you want to see play an astronaut returning to a human-free earth in the almost-certain-to-happen Rise sequel? Are you hoping that James Franco returns? Am I the only one hoping that, by the Rise sequel, Caesar has taken to wearing a laurel wreath on his head and wearing a toga? And sound off here: Where would you place Rise of the Planet in the Apes in the Apes franchise? (I’d say it’s better than most of the post time-travel films, but still can’t compare to the thrills of the original film, or the cynical charm of Beneath the Planet of the Apes.) And most importantly of all: What should they title the sequel? Here’s my pitch: Fall of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Part 1.