Way back in 1968, that famous last shot from Planet of the Apes – the Statue of Liberty reduced to a historic ruin – hinted at the unholy mess that led to the simians taking charge of the human zoo. Since then, several sequels have pressed the yarn forward, always lamely, but no one has thought to move it back, to trace the implication of that final shot. Until now.
Welcome to the prequel, along with some happy news. Hollywood has shown a relatively deft touch with "origin stories," and this is no exception. The running time is efficient, the direction is clean, the story is simple but resonant, the effects are understated yet impressive, and the near-wordless star of the show puts on an acting clinic. Damned if the risen one doesn't lift us out of our seats.
Opening with a stark close-up of an ape's expressive eyes, the movie is quick to suggest its dominant point of view. But, cleverly enough, that perspective takes a while to settle in. Instead, early on, we seem to be in the familiar territory of the misguided scientist, guilty as ever of hubris as he strives to mess with the natural order. Will (James Franco) has isolated a "benign virus" that, by restoring damaged brain cells, could be a cure for Alzheimer's disease – the very ailment afflicting his once-dear and now-dotty dad (John Lithgow). The drug is sure working wonders on Bright Eyes, the smartest ape in the lab, until … oops, those are some nastily aggressive side effects.
The project is killed along with the animals, but wouldn't you just know it: Seems Bright Eyes had a baby. Of course, Will furtively adopts the tyke, whom he lovingly raises in the confines of his San Francisco home, after giving him the rather prophetic name of Caesar. Yep, expect repercussions.
So far, this is stock stuff. But the genre begins a subtle shift, from mad scientist into more sociological terrain, a tale of the noble savage trapped between competing cultures. Maturing into a brilliantly precocious teen, capable of communicating in signs and comprehending speech, Caesar is the wild child, civilized yet confused. He's trapped in a kind of no-ape's land, neither pet nor child, no longer animal yet not quite human. This is where Andy Serkis, with his "performance capture" wedded to the CGI effects, begins his silent tour de force – the perplexed Caesar is quite touching.
Then the narrative plates shift again. When Caesar too vigorously defends his "grandpa" from an obnoxious neighbour, the authorities pack him off to the Primate Control Centre – essentially a jail, where he is caged with all those lesser apes. Neatly, that tale of the wild child in civilization gets stood on its head – now the imprisoned Caesar is the civilized man in the jungle, and finding that his superior intelligence is no match either for the violent strength of his fellow creatures or the cruel bigotry of the keepers.
Another shift. Cue The Great Escape, as Caesar re-acculturates to his new surroundings, learning from the brutes even while teaching them. To a "circus orangutan" with a rudimentary schooling in signs, he exchanges this morsel of wisdom: "Apes alone weak, apes together strong." Well, goodbye evolution, hello revolution, and on to the final genre transition, when the sociological gives way to the political: The masses breaking out of their shackles to answer the cry of freedom.
So, through its several changes, the movie evolves right along with the apes, and director Rupert Wyatt handles it all in a straightforward, no-nonsense style – never elegant but always to the point. On screen almost continually, his lead actor is a huge help. Serkis's facial expressions are themselves a study in metamorphosis and a veritable plot summary, eliding from trust to confusion to fear to sorrow to anger to resolve. It's quite the star turn.
En route, some fun can be had playing spot the homage to the original picture – they're embedded throughout. Even the trite location of the climax, atop the Golden Gate Bridge, works out fairly well. After all, those giant girders and spans make for a perfect jungle gym. Advantage primates. And don't leave before the credits. Their rolling is interrupted by a very brief scene that not only adds crucial info but also doubles as the movie-in-miniature – it, too, is quick, it's simple and it says a lot without speaking a word.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
- Directed by Rupert Wyatt
- Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
- Starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, John Lithgow
- Classification: PG