Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Remaking and rebooting a franchise can often be tricky - if you get it right, you end up with a work that is an overall classic (such as Battlestar: Galactica); get it wrong, and the result is something that is extremely embarrassing and not worth watching (there are many examples of those - so many, in fact, I could write about ten years' worth of columns on each one). But sometimes, there's a rethink of a franchise - it may seem out of place, or a way of "violating" continuity, but it ends up becoming a smart, strategic way to reframe how we perceive a particular creative endeavor.

This month, I'm talking about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Although it was seen as a "prequel", it is more of a reboot of the series....in fact, I'm willing to argue that, in many ways, it is as radical a viewing experience in 2011 as the original Planet of the Apes was back in 1968.

(And yes, I'll be discussing that film as well, but will gloss over its sequels, and will ignore Tim Burton's 2001 "reimagining".)

It's a little difficult for me to be objective - Planet of the Apes was one of the first films I fell in love with, as I once spent several late nights watching each entry of the series. When you're a child, watching men in extensive make-up play apes is rather fascinating. (Well, Linda Harrison in a leather bikini also helped). But look beneath its rather plain exterior, and there is a treasure trove of metaphors, satire, and social commentary. There's a real effort to make this as full-blooded a science-fiction movie as possible, integrating some smart scripting, nuanced acting, and a cross-generational appeal.

Based on a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boule, the original Planet of the Apes movie was pitched to various studios before making its way to 20th Century Fox, which had (at the time) suffered a variety of setbacks. (Making high budget musicals in the mid-1960s was probably not the wisest business move for a major studio). In fact, the film had gone through a variety of scripts (most notably written by Rod Serling, who had some pedigree in writing for the screen) before moving into final production. One of the major shifts in how the movie was produced came through budgetary concerns - Serling's scripts had focused on an advanced ape society, yet that would have meant a higher spend by the studio, thus shifting towards a more "primitive" ape society. Ultimately, the final script was written by blacklisted writer Michael Wilson, who integrated a variety of satirical and political touches to a script which had some really strong moments (including the infamous doll scene, and the ironic twist at the end. No, I won't spoil that ending, if only because there are a few souls who have never seen the original movie).

But it was in various other aspects of production where Planet of the Apes stood miles apart from its contemporary fare, and which make it stand alone not just as an ahead-of-its-time film, but as an all-time genre classic. John Chambers' unique makeup for the film, creating three distinct classes of ape, helped move it away from being "guys in monkey suits." (It also helped that Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans used the limitations of the makeup to their advantage, creating very subtle nuanced performances that would be distinctive even without external appliances). Even the soundtrack by Jerry Goldsmith (which earned an Academy Award) used unusual and cutting-edge instruments, giving the the film an otherwise unearthly feel....

....but it's the script that brings it down to Earth, suggesting how a man bitterly disappointed in humanity seeks "something better", and ends up fighting for humanity. How a society deals with its own internal prejudices, and does not see an underlying truth. How those in power will often ignore reality to further their own political ends. There are some deep themes in the original Planet of the Apes, many of which are not as obvious, because quite honestly - the script doesn't hammer these themes incessantly, but weaves them into a narrative that contains some spectacular action sequences, great humorous moments, and some plot twists that could have been obvious, but occur organically throughout the story.

(For more details about the making of the original 1968 film - and its sequels - I suggest hunting down the documentary Behind The Planet of the Apes. It is available on DVD, and you can also watch it in segments via You Tube. And yes, it does contain that scene from The Simpsons).

It's that same distinctiveness and strive towards melding clever moments with a strong story that drive 2010's Rise of the Planet of Apes. Yes, it is a slight "reboot" of the film series, but quite honestly, that would not matter - despite some of the callbacks to the original series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a film experience in itself.

Rise focuses on Will Rodman, a young scientist who is attempting to find a cure for his father's Alzheimer's. After a chimpanzee and her offspring are euthanized after a failed clinical trial, Rodman adopts the sole surviving offspring which he names Caesar. Gradually, we see that the heightened intelligence which the drug gave Caesar's mother....was passed down to the chimp. However, one of the complications is a virus that becomes extremely fatal to humans....but not to simians. We see increasing tension between the "human" world and how Caesar is treated....and things decline fatally.

In its way, Rise of the Planet of the Apes shares similar qualities to its 1968 forebear. The obvious is the use of motion-capture technology on human actors for simian performances. (Avoiding makeup not only helped steer cleer of the Burton debacle, but also kept the film from touching on latter Mystery Science Theater 3000 concepts). Andy Serkis does a very good job in portraying Caesar, using merely facial expressions to suggest emotional complexity and depth. But it's James Franco who provides the most human anchor of the story. This could have easily been a much weaker performance (in fact, Franco took over when Tobey Maguire bowed out), but Franco provides a sympathetic, layered performance as the not-quite-father, not-quite-friend of the rebellious Caesar. It's a film that touches on many themes - cruelty, inhumanity, and finally, rebellion - that makes it more like Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (in my opinion, the best of the original series films) than its 1968 forebear, and that's a good thing - Rise speaks to a much more contemporary audience, and I will argue that it will hold the same fascination for future generations as Planet of the Apes did for past generations.

And both films will be eternal classics, despite any wisecracks encouraging darn dirty apes to get their paws off of things.

But that's it for this month - as always, please give Zone 4 a listen every week. Please like us on Facebook, and we'll give you a shout-out (and for a small fee, we'll even say something nice about you). You're always more than welcome to read more of my thoughts via my blog or follow me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, keep watching, and happy holidays!

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