The 2009 reboot of the Planet of the Apes franchise is a master class in how Hollywood ought to approach any kind of revival: take a series that is some 40 years old, mine it for what made it compelling in the first place, apply modern storytelling technique, and create something that is once both strange and familiar, both original and derivative, both close enough to source to energize bygone fans and far enough from it to steer clear of the dead-end that is narrative nostalgia. Finding that Goldilocks zone is far easier said than done, especially in the highly collaborative process of studio filmmaking. But against all odds, writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and director Rupert Wyatt managed to do the nearly impossible and create a new version of a venerated classic of science fiction and create something that neither competes with or obviates its predecessor, but also towers above it in terms of quality, sophistication, depth and satisfaction. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is all about the bright lines that get crossed on the difficult path of evolution. So too does this movie cross its own evolutionary line, and stand all the taller for it.
The story takes place in modern-day San Francisco, where researcher Will Rodman is perfecting a viral-based drug that will hopefully cure Alzheimer’s disease. He tests it on his chimpanzee subject Bright Eyes, who soon gains extraordinary intelligence and goes on a rampage to protect her infant son, Caesar. Bright Eyes is tragically gunned down, and a guilt-ridden Will takes Caesar in and raises him. But Caesar shows signs of having inherited his mother’s mutated intelligence, which gives Will hope that his scientific research really could be on the precipice of a world-changing breakthrough. Will is right about that, but he’s wrong about almost everything else. Soon circumstances swiftly change for both Will and Caesar, as Caesar is sent to a brutal primate shelter where he lives under constant torment from his human captors as well as the untender mercies of some of his fellow chimps, gorillas and orangutans. Finally, Caesar hits a point of no return and decides that it is time to take his destiny into his own hands. And as he does, he knows it will set into motion a chain of events that will forever alter the world of man…and the planet of the apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has all of the familiar elements of a by-the-numbers summer popcorn event: cool premise on the bleeding edge of current science, impressive visual effects, and a most ambitious set-piece climax. But what really sets this apart is that for all of the VFX and spectacle, this is a story about characters. About those well-meaning souls who learn the hard way that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, about those cynical tyrants for whom suffering and deprivation are simply two more forms of plunder, and about a guy who simply wants something better for his people—and is willing to kill and die to get it—even if his people aren’t themselves sure of what that something might be.
More than anything, this story is about the rise of Caesar, the ape revolutionary who in ways both accidental and intentional will bring down the human civilization into which he was born. He will usher in a harsh new age in which apes might have run of the planet, but they hardly control it. Revolutions are the sort of thing that are only glamorous when taught in irresponsible history classes. Caesar shows us just how hard and lonely it is to be a revolutionary, and how much revolutions are an exercise in living on the edge of extinction until the people hellbent on killing you finally give up and go away. As he breaks free from his enclosure and takes his newfound family with him, Caesar doesn’t really know what is about to happen all around him. He just knows that he has to do what he has to do. Whatever happens next are all consequences worth enduring. And isn’t that how most revolutions begin?
While the VFX in this movie have been sidelined as a wonderful but ultimately noncritical aspect, one part that must be recognized is the amazing motion capture work that so believably portrays Caesar, an ape with as much intellect and pathos as any of the humans around him, if not more. We must believe Caesar’s pain, confusion, desperation and finally, his rage, if we are to believe this movie. And by the time the Golden Gate Bridge becomes the world’s most unusual battleground, we are fully invested. Not just because we are interested in Caesar, but because we believe in him. We know that were we stuck where he was stuck, had we suffered what he had suffered, if we got the chance to turn the tables that he got, we would have done so in a heartbeat. At least, we tell ourselves that.
And that is one of the things that makes this new Planet of the Apes series so compelling. Yes, the apes are a walking, talking metaphorical referendum on humanity’s own greatest boons and banes. But to be that, the apes must be just human enough to become part of the problem they are solving. And Caesar knows it, too. Which is why when he leads his people into the wilds, it isn’t a moment of triumph, but a poignant moment of truth. Caesar knows what he has given up in his bid for freedom. Such is the price of wrenching freedom from those who will not give it up. Caesar was willing to pay it, but he is cursed with the heavy knowledge that the price of freedom is never paid only once. That cost stays with you forever.