If you're like me, you probably thought there wasn't possibly a good reason for another Planet of the Apes movie. In fact, I'm willing to bet that at least 90% of the things on the internet talking about this movie have already made this point (Go look them up and check my math, I'll wait here). There aren't many films that have been as thoroughly pillaged as the 1968 classic that featured one of Charlton Heston's most famous meltdowns. (BTW, do you know how I know Chuck Heston's awesome? Because you have to consider this as ONLY ONE of his most famous meltdowns.) That film spawned four sequels, a live action TV series, an animated TV series, a musical version (OK, it was just on The Simpsons, but I'm counting it), and - most recently - an ill-fated 2001 remake that is probably still the low point of Tim Burton's career. And yet, here we are in the year 2011, looking at another Apes film - this time a prequel - and....well, and I'm here to tell you why it's one of the better films I've seen this year.
The newest ape film - Rise of the Planet of the Apes - is (SPOILER ALERT) set on the planet Earth, and takes us back to the beginning of this whole Apes saga. I must admit that I'm not too familiar with the films and shows that followed the original Planet of the Apes, so I'm not sure if a backstory as to how the apes took over Earth existed previously, but I can tell you that director Rupert Wyatt is certainly starting his story from formula. In fact, the film begins with a scientist (James Franco) suggesting that a new drug his company has been testing on chimpanzees holds the cure to Alzheimer's Disease. This is great in theory, but there are minor kinks in the system - like the test ape going crazy, attacking dozens of people, and ending up shot dead on the middle of the conference room table. But the aftermath of the catastrophe reveals an unexpected surprise - this ape was simply protecting her newborn child. With the rest of the test animals disposed of, Franco's character is forced to take the day-old chimp home to save its life.
When he arrives home, the baby ape quickly becomes a fixture in the household. What follows is a long - we're talking half the movie here, at least - recollection of the lives of our scientist, his Alzheimer's stricken father (John Lithgow), and the ape, which they name Caesar. Caesar has inherited many rare traits from his late mother, and the film breezes through major breakthroughs and revelations that span across the first eight years of Caesar's life (including the addition of a love interest for Franco, played by Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto).
A lot of this seems a little like one of those superhero "origin stories" we're so used to in our summer fare this decade, but top notch effects and many breaks with the human characters keep the film feeling fresh. There is real human drama going on here - particularly between Franco and Lithgow, two Oscar nominees who add credibility to the film by comfortably sliding into their roles - and it wasn't long before I stopped pausing when a computer-generated ape shows up in the middle of these characters' lives. The film is incredibly balanced during these developmental scenes, and very little of what we see (except perhaps the addition of Pinto) feels like filler.
Of course, people have never really chosen Planet of the Apes films/shows because they want to see the humans and apes coexist. Rest assured, the film builds to an action-filled final act which features top notch special effects and plenty of tense, well-framed destruction and carnage. The Golden Gate Bridge becomes the scene of the film's biggest battle (some have called this a throwback to a different Heston film with something red and a sea), as Caesar leads the apes against the humans. The CGI is pretty seamless when these battles begin, and the motion capture techniques - with actor Andy Serkis bringing Caesar to life the same way he brought forth Gollum and King Kong - make it incredibly easy for the audience to relate to the primates on screen.
Of course, there has to be something to get us from "childish ape in a Harry and the Hendersons-esque setting" to "the humans are our enemy", and it's this middle section of the film that really sells the film to me. I don't want to go too far into detail about what occurs here - first of all it would spoil some of the turns, second of all it was pretty complex and I'm not sure I could relay all the details anyway - but the point must be made that we can see the "other side" of humanity that isn't represented by polite Oscar nominees. Caesar comes into contact with a few relatively despicable humans - ranging from good actors like Brian Cox and David Hewlett to bad actors like Harry Potter co-star Tom Felton (Felton's performance is easily the film's biggest flaw, and - worst of all - he blunders the biggest wink toward the original film) - and the film sets us up to understand just this planet became the property of the Apes as Caesar witnesses the treatment he and his kind receive from mankind.
What's most interesting about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that the film never really makes the viewer pick a side. Caesar is shown in a sympathetic light for most of the film, but also becomes a violent rebel leader as things start to work against him. Franco's character bends over backwards to help save and protect Caesar, but has his own flaws in his approach to the situation. By not spelling out what the viewer should feel - you'll get no proclamations that all humans or all apes are bad here - Wyatt (assisted by writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver) empowers us to watch the film's events as an unbiased observer. There are no real good guys or bad guys here - except Felton, who sucks - and no short cuts are taken to dumb the film down for all audiences.
In the end, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is spectacle at its most spectacular. There are few flaws across the board, as all elements of the film (except Felton's forced manliness) come together to create a satisfying adventure that honors the original film in its own way. There's a lot crammed into the film's brisk 105 minutes, but I would have been perfectly fine with the film running a bit longer to flesh out more of Caesar and company's story. However improbable it may seem, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has breathed a new life into a once extinct franchise - and it's also one of the most satisfying sci-fi films in recent memory.