In recent years, it’s become increasingly common for film studios to relaunch or ‘re-imagine’ classic franchises, with new plots, characters, origins, and takes by writers, producers, and directors who have nothing to do with the original intent of the creators. Just ten years after an already attempted Apes relaunch (Tim Burton’s failed film), many people are left debating: Did this series need a reboot?
The original film, which spawned four sequels and two short-livedTV series, has gone down in history as having one of the greatest film endings of all time. Not to mention it birthed a slew of catch phrases and included a commanding performance from one of Hollywood’s legends. This new film is neither a sequel or a prequel. It starts in a whole new place, but it evolves with the understanding of what made the original series captivating to multiple generations. The Apes films, at their core, were never simply action or sci-fi films. They were morality tales on the ethical treatment of animals and cautionary tales about the dangers of science run amok. They were also responses to the great fears of the day- that the Cold War would lead to the nuclear annihilation of mankind. The original film showed us that man could ultimately destroy itself and that our fears over the unknown could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This film explores many of those same ideas, updated for modern times. Rise tackles the conflict between the desire for scientists to save lives and the motivation of big pharma to rush results for profit. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist doing Alzheimer research on chimpanzees in a race to find a cure. His company is motivated solely by profit and he is motivated by the desire to save his ailing father. After a chimp named Bright Eyes shows side effects including a promising increase in intelligence but also a violent side, all the apes are ordered to be put down and the treatment declared a failure. However, Will takes in Bright Eyes’ offspring Ceasar and raises him as a son, only to discover Ceasar has genetically inherited the drug treatment and has intelligence rivaling humans.
Will’s girlfriend (Freida Pinto) voices her concerns that chimps are inherently wild and can be very dangerous. After Caesar attacks a neighbor, the courts force him to be relocated to an ape preserve, where he finds himself caged, mistreated, and an outcast as he is neither human nor normal ape. The mistreatment of the apes eventually leads Caesar to lead a revolt, in which he ultimately steals the treatment that made him intelligent and provides it to his fellow apes. The orangutans run rampant as they attempt to set up a new civilization. As a major subplot of the film, the original drug also created a super-virus that threatens to wipe out humanity. No doubt the writers used this mechanism to setup future sequels. In the original franchise, it was nuclear weapons that wiped out human civilization, but in the 21st century, biology dominates science, and this change is both topical and appropriate.
For fans of the franchise, there are also several references to the original series, including a scene in which trappers chase apes through the jungle (a reversal from the first film), and references to the Icarus shuttle en route to Mars being lost (Col. Taylor’s ship? That will wind up in the future where apes rule). In an homage to the fourth film, Caesar’s first word ever uttered by an ape is ‘No’. Perhaps what made this film the most fascinating to watch was Andy Serkis’ motion capture portrayal of Casear, who with almost no dialogue becomes arguably one of the most captivating characters of 2011.
Rise captures all of the philosophical debate, metaphor, and symbolism that made the original so interesting, but also replaces much of the 60s/70s ‘cheese’ with darker story telling and more action. I am curious whether the sequel will remain in this time period, chronicling the battle for the planet, or skip right to the future where apes are in control. Did this sequel need a reboot? The answer may not be yes, but I trust this team to be the group of people to get the job done right…and I can’t help but think that Roddy McDowall would have agreed.