Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Planet Of The Apes Franchise Rises

When looking at the 2011 Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (Rise) with Will Rodman, most people consider its similarities to the 1972 prequel (and fourth installment of five from the original franchise), Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (Conquest) with Roddy McDowell. It's a mistake.

Both tell how apes became the dominant species on the planet, a story that was alluded to for its historical context in the original source novel, La Penète Des Singes a.k.a. Monkey Planet a.k.a. Planet Of The Apes, by French author Pierre Boulle. But that is where the similarities end, with Conquest remaining closer, even if it is not necessarily an accurate representation, to Boulle's original vision.

In the 2011 reboot, director Rupert Wyatt, along with writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, removed the shackles of the previous franchise despite nods to the previous films.

Instead of apes overwhelming humans after they become lazy enough to degenerate (Boulle) or because apes from the future created an ancestral time loop (Conquest), Rise apes are given a boost from a gene therapy drug (a modified virus) that mutates and endows them with hyper intelligence. The virus has other consequences too.

The inspiration for such a reinvention very little to do with Conquest. It largely hinges on the 1968 film Planet Of The Apes (Planet) with Charlton Heston, with the modern version more straightforward in its origin.

The Boulle story behind the films is satirical.

La Penète Des Singes bears little resemblance to Rise. It's more closely akin to 1968 The Planet Of The Apes. However, even Planet lost some of the original nuances from the novel.

There are no space tourists to find the story of Ulysse Mèrou, a journalist who recounts being one of the first men to travel at near the speed of light to a distant planet where humans are primitive and apes are nearly identical to 20th century Earth. (The space travelers are also important to the novel's final twist.)

And, with the exception of time dilation, Boulle never explores time travel as much as he explores the possibility of a second Earth with nearly identical timelines. Even the name of the Boulle's imagined planet, Soror (Latin for sister), plays this out. A planet fitting for his crisp and mocking message: our pride in human superiority is largely misplaced.

The different starts are starkly dramatic.

For the 2011 filmmakers, the 1968 film serves as the most significant inspiration. Wyatt says as much in interviews, conjuring up the image of Heston dragging his hands through the sand in front of the Statue of Liberty, saying: "You did it. You really went and did it."

As an introduction to a franchise reboot, the film locks its sights on the moment when one rising species and one undone by its own hubris cross each other on the same curve. For writer Jaffa, that moment was best articulated when Caesar, the chimpanzee protagonist played by the brilliant Andy Serkis, vocalizes his first word: "No."

Although uttered in one single syllable, Caesar says much more. No, we will not cower any longer. No, we will not leave our fate in your hands. No, we do not recognize you as our masters. Chilling.

While the film travels in one direction toward a known destination, it also carries the storyline further away from the original work. This is a man-undoes-man story, with viewers left powerless. The best anyone can hope is that Caesar learned some of our best and not just all of our worst qualities.

As the 1968 franchise starter, Planet follows a similar path to the Boulle novel but with a much more apocalyptic vision from writers Rod Sterling and Michael Wilson. The apes never ascend to the sophistication of the 20th centrury, but are trapped inside a modern political allegory nonetheless.

The astronauts crash and are astonished to find pre-lingual people on an alien world before being captured by apes on horseback, one of the most iconic scenes in science fiction history. So is Heston, who plays an unlikeable brute of a protagonist, always willing to fight insults and violence with insults and violence. At the end, he learns where that will lead. And we all learn that humans are doomed unless we change today.

Although the poignancy of the book is sacrificed for something more serious, the first film always left so many questions unanswered against the backdrop of an otherworldly landscape. And, as much as Serkis is celebrated today for his talents in stop-motion acting, Kim Hunter and McDowell were celebrated then for acting past all the makeup.

Planet Of The Apes (1968) And Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011) Share A 7.0 On The Liquid Hip Richter Scale. 

Although some might argue that Planet is dated and ripe with overacting, it's still the film against which all sequels, series, remakes, and spins have been measured (usually with disastrous results). However, in its own right, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was smart to start on another chapter, leaving everyone longing for another film — the one that will face a much more critical eye.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes (2011) is available for purchase on iTunes with special features and Planet Of The Apes (1968) is available to rent for $2.99. Barnes & Noble carries the 2011 film on Blu-ray, the 1968 film on DVD, and the 1963 novel by Boulle that started it all. Amazon also carries a 2011 two-disc combo, 1968 collector's DVD, and novel by Boulle.
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