Good Movie; Bad Prequel
The original Planet of the Apes movie is an undeniable science-fiction classic. Propelled by Pierre Boulle's truly imaginative story, the screenwriting talents of Rod Serling and the heavy-hitting acting of Charlton Heston, the film captured the imagination of the movie-going public on its way to becoming nearly the most popular film of 1968, losing out only to the epic 2001: A Space Odessey.
To the eventual detriment of its reputation, the film spawned four sequels, a short-lived television series, graphic novels and untold merchandising. By the time the last episode of the canceled television series aired, the public's innundatiaon with all things ape was finally sufficient to counterbalance the inherent profitability of the original story.
By 1988, the length of the Planet-of-the-Apes hiatus and advancements in the craft of movie making suggested to some that there was yet-again a potential market for a retelling of the story. Though it would take many years, various script incarnations and numerous potential directors and cast members, the effort eventually resulted in Tim Burton's 2001 "reimagination" of the story, once again named The Planet of the Apes.
What may not have been apparent to many people who saw the 2001 version is that the creators attempted to mix things up a bit by crafting a script that was closer to Boulle's original novel than the 1968 movie. Between this ill-advised attempt at creativity and the hokey twist ending, the movie sadly managed to avoid all the allure of the original while capturing the tiredness of the franchise. The movie's release reaffirmed the public's desire for a Planet-of-the-Apes based story. But the film itself proved to be a major disappointment.
So here we are in 2011 with the latest installment of the franchise: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. This time, for the first time, the story is not a retelling or a sequel, but rather a prequel. In particular, it's a prequel to the 1968 movie which explains, in part, how apes came to gain control of the world.
Set in high-tech San Francisco, the movie revolves around Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who is attempting to genetically engineer a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Will's research involves constant experimentation on chimpanzees. Recent results involving a chimpanzee nicknamed Bright Eyes (one of several references to other Planet of the Apes movies) look unequivocally impressive, with Bright Eyes demonstrating advanced cognitive thought. But as Will presents the initial results to his Board of Directors, Bright Eyes breaks loose, terrorizes the building and eventually must be shot dead in dramatic form. Convinced that the so-called cure is unsafe, the Board decides to nix the project and orders all chimpanzees euthenized.
Soon after, Will discovers the real reason for Bright Eyes' erratic and aggressive behavior, she had secretly given birth and felt that her newborn was being threatened. Although initially reluctant, Will takes the baby chimp home and raises him. Almost immediately, it's evident that the infant, whom Will names Caesar, has inherited his mother's heightened intelligence.
The audience also learns that Will's motivation for finding a cure to Alzheimer's is not entirely clinical; his father is afflicted with the disease.
As the years go by, Caesar grows into a remarkable chimpanzee who continues to demonstrate heightened cognitive abilities. He lives happily in Will's attic as a vertible member of the family. All is well, until one day when Caesar feels Will's father is being threatened by a neighbor and he comes to his defense the only way he knows how, by attacking the neighbor.
The state takes custody of Caesar and puts him in a facillity with other primates. Initially, Caesar has a hard time adjusting to the constraints of his new environment. But before long, his superior intellect allows him to assume the position of leader of all the primates.
With this final change in circumstance, the stage is set for the plot to proceed down its anticipated path. There are a few twists thrown in along the way. Movie goers who expect the world to be in ruins by the end of the film - a perfectly reasonable expectation given the marketing - may be in for a bit of a surprise.
As stories go, this is a good one if judged on the basis of its own merits. The chimpanzees, especially Caesar, are characters that truly communicate complex emotions, at times being pensive, devious, hurt, empathetic and much more. The story unfolds in such a way that the audience really buys into caring about Caesar and the other characters (mostly).
That's not to say, however, that the movie is without problems. Some of the behaviors exhibited by Will and his fellow "scientists" are just unrealistic - such as their willingness to read too much into a very limited amount of data. Further, the eventual ending is simultaneously unrealistic and unsatisfying. But, all in all, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a fun movie.
If we judge the movie on the basis of what it claims to be - a prequel to the 1968 Planet of the Apes - I find it considerably less impressive. The clear implication from the 1968 movie is that humans had destroyed their own civilization through some type of nuclear apocalypse. This is why the Eastern seaboard of the United States was essentially unrecognizable and the Statue of Liberty was buried in rubble. The apes were effectively the meek who inherited the earth. Taylor assumes as much in his final revelations and there is no reason to suggest his assumptions are incorrect. So, making the demise of human civilzation occur through other means, especially means that are not likely to account for the massive destruction of human civilization, feels a bit like rewriting an already well-written history.
Additionally, I have the sense that the movie subtley makes an uncomfortable shift in perspective. The original story was largely a cautionary tale of human frailty. We humans ultimately were unable to survive our "techological adolescence" (as the character Ellie put it in the movie Contact) and the so-called apes benefited from our failure. In this new prequel, our implied demise, while still self inflicted, is more clearly due to circumstances beyond our control. Furthermore, the idea that the apes would not have been in a position to take over the world except for human intervention in the evolutionary process just seems to be a less compelling story. One could argue that the prequel is cautionary in an entirely new dimension. However, I feel that the writers overstepped their bounds in altering this basic premise of the classic 1968 film.
So, in summary, I would suggest that you forget that it's a prequel to the original Planet of the Apes and appreciate the movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, for what it is: a good story.