Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)



Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves two purposes. It’s a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but – now that two potential sequels have been announced – it also reboots the entire series. It does both of these things excellently by taking advantage of its ability to learn from the mistakes of the original movies.

Whenever I start getting geeky about continuity while talking to my wife, she usually has the same response. Since I'm often trying to think through a continuity hole while I’m talking, the conversation goes something like this:

“If people knew that there’s a danger of the apes’ taking over one day, why did they bring apes into their homes after the Pet Plague? And why did the government let them?”

“Because the writers needed it to happen, of course. Otherwise they couldn't have had their sequel.”

“No, I mean in the story. It doesn’t make any sense.”

“Well, when they wrote Escape from the Planet of the Apes, they didn’t know what they were going to do for the next movie yet. They just made it up as they went along.”



That exact conversation never happened, because Diane has yet to appreciate the finer qualities of movies about talking gorillas and hasn't been watching these with me, but we’ve had lots of variations on it about lots of movies and TV shows from Star Wars to How I Met Your Mother. She just doesn’t care about fixing continuity mistakes like I do. And that’s cool. She doesn’t have to enjoy this stuff in exactly the same way as me.

What's more, I bring this all up because she’s right, of course. The real explanation for any continuity goof is that the writers screwed up. The Planet of the Apes series was obviously written from film to film with no long-range plan. I mean, look at Beneath. There was no thought for a sequel after that movie, so when they decided to make one, they pulled out the time-travel scenario. That was good, but it also created a lot of problems. Of course, those problems weren’t as noticeable when the movies were originally made and shown. The only way to see them was in the theater or when a network chose to air them on TV, so there was no creating your own marathon or going back to see if you caught a particular detail right. The original audience for Conquest of the Planet of the Apes saw a statue referring to a plague that wiped out all the cats and dogs and thought, “Oh, yeah. I remember something about that from the last movie.” And for most of them, that was all the consideration they gave it. The writers didn’t have to be that careful.

The advantage that Rise’s Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have is that they get to plan a trilogy from the get-go. And not only that, they get to use the original five movies as a template; borrowing what worked and changing what didn’t. Without having to extend the series beyond the destruction of the entire planet in the previous film, there’s no need for messy time-travel. They can tell Caesar’s story without that; tightening it up and focusing more on the relationship between Caesar and humanity. That relationship is what makes Rise so good. There are problems with the movie – as hilariously pointed out by cartoonist Lisa Hanawalt – but I was able to overlook them because I cared about Caesar and what happened to him. And not just him, but James Franco’s character too.



Watching the trailers, I knew it was going to come down to how well they did that, but I figured that even if they blew the first two acts, I’d at least get an awesome ape uprising at the end. I certainly did, but it was made powerful by all the groundwork the film had laid earlier. It wasn’t just apes in revolt; it was characters I cared about finally pushing back against their oppressors. It was cathartic as hell.

And on top of that, there was all this stuff that I loved about the original movies. There were several famous lines repeated and – unlike in Burton’s movie – they worked. I found it especially fascinating that Charlton Heston’s quotes were given to Dodge (Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton), a sadistic kid who works at the ape shelter run by his father (Brian Cox). Heston’s prejudice against the apes has a different, darker tone when it’s embodied by a human in power over them. And it subtly increases the tension between the audience’s allegiance to its own species and its wish to see the more noble beings prevail. Again, unlike Burton’s version.

I also loved the blink-and-you-miss-them references to Taylor’s rocket launch and its disappearance. Very smooth way to hint at a future story, even if that story is just the one told in the 1968 movie. Fortunately, it's not.

I saw Rise without knowing that it was the first of a planned trilogy. I should have known better – knowing about the importance Hollywood places on tentpoles and franchises – but I went into it just hoping for one, good film. What I got was a great film that tells a complete story and I left the theater satisfied that if this was all there was, I would be happy just to have seen it. Of course, I’m even happier knowing that there are going to be more, so long as they’re as awesome as this one.

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