What makes for a good remake is that it must succeed in being old and new at the same time. A remake has to satisfy those who loved the original and have certain specific expectations; and it also has to be its own entity, putting a new spin on an old idea. A good remake can’t completely toss out the old (like the remake of House of Wax) and conversely, it can’t just be a scene-by-scene imitation (like the remakes of Psycho and the Omen, which were just photocopies of the originals) so it’s a hard balancing act, that most remakes don’t get right. A good remake does.
Good remakes are so rare that when one as well-done as Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes along, it deserves a round of applause. Most remakes retain only the cosmetics of their predecessor, but a good remake retains the heart of it. This is a good one.
The original “Apes” franchise included five films, starting with the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes. This article looks at Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is a reimagining of the fourth film in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. It starred Roddy McDowell as Caesar the simian messiah. Caesar is reinvented in Rise and once again, the apes are mad as hell and they’re not gonna take it anymore! The main difference between the new Caesar and the original is that the old McDowell version was the offspring of evolved ape time-travelers from the far future, whereas the new Caesar is the product of a mother who was genetically enhanced by modern science.
Caesar the cerebral chimp and all the apes in Rise were done by Motion Capture technology, as opposed to the masks worn by McDowell and company in the old franchise. Andy Serkis—the first master of Motion Capture acting—performed the body motions for Caesar. Serkis already had some Ape in his resume already, since he did the motions for the titular Gorilla in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake. Serkis is probably still better known for a different Peter Jackson project, since he did the motions and voice for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the first Hobbit film. The Motion Capture in Rise even outdoes what we saw in Avatar, because it so seamlessly blends real actors with the Motion Captured characters. Caesar and his fellow primates interact with the human cast seamlessly.
A quick recap of the story: Neurologist Will Rodman (James Franco) is obsessed with curing Alzheimer’s disease because his dad is stricken with it. He creates formula ALZ112 which he tests on chimps. The formula spectacularly increases the intelligence of an ape called “Bright Eyes” (A nod to the original films). Will is about to announce his big discovery when Bright Eyes goes on a rampage and has to be put down. Will’s corporate overlords order the project discontinued and all the “contaminated” apes destroyed. But Will saves one chimp…Caesar, the new-born son of “Bright Eyes” who he brings home and keeps as a pet, because his ailing father Charles (John Lithgow) responds so well to the chimp’s presence.
It doesn’t take Will long to realize that Caesar has not only inherited his mother’s genetically enhanced intelligence, but has surpassed her, equaling human intelligence. Caesar learns to understand English and to communicate with Will via sign-language. Over the course of eight years, Caesar graduates from pet to surrogate child for Will, and even helps Will get a girlfriend in the form of pretty veterinarian Caroline (Frieda Pinto). All is well until a nasty neighbor gets rough with old Charles for damaging his car, and Caesar rushes to the rescue, savaging the bully and even chomping off a finger for good measure. This leads animal control to take Caesar away from Will.
Caesar is sent to a primate house which seems like a fun playground at first, but secretly is a brutal animal prison camp, run by uncaring supervisor John Landon (Brian Cox) and his cruel, abusive son Dodge Landon (Played by Tom Felton, still in his evil Drago Malfoy persona.) Dodge is so mean to the Apes that he might as well be wearing a shirt that says “First Victim”, because you know what’s in store for this guy. Establishing himself as the king of the captured simians, he plans the big breakout. His “generals” are a clever orangutan from the circus named Maurice, former alpha-male “Rocket” and a particularly large and powerful gorilla. When Caesar realizes that his ape army needs to be smarter, he breaks out and returns later with some of the ALZ112 formula to turn his primate pals into a clever company of chimps.
When the inevitable break-out and the revolt occurs, it’s non-stop action for the rest of the film. Caesar uses literal guerrilla tactics (no pun intended) to take on the police. They even stage a type of recruitment drive at the zoo, picking up some reinforcements there. The climactic battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is exciting and well done. And the cliffhanger ending nicely sets up a sequel. (Concluding on an epically ominous note, just as Conquest did.)
The early section of the film, where Caesar lives and learns with his human family, is a bit like Born Free, with a would-be wild animal enjoying the comforts of civilization. Franco’s well-intentioned but over-reaching Will is the Dr. Frankenstein of the piece, who learns a lesson too late about hubris and playing God. The part of the film where Caesar first gets to climb trees and swing free in the Redwood forest with unrestrained glee plays out like a segment from Disney’s Tarzan. Later, when Caesar is locked up and abused, it becomes akin to one of those prison films, like Cool Hand Luke or the Shawshank Redemption. This latter part is the most stylistic section of the film. The long, wordless sequences when Caesar uses his brains to establish himself as the Alpha-Ape in the primate habitat are particularly effective.
James Franco—who was still trying to shake off his disastrous turn at the Oscars—was top billed but this film belongs totally to Caesar/Serkis. Hidden behind the primate SFX, Serkis manages to convey sympathy, strength, sadness and righteous anger. The excellent Motion Capture allows him to be very expressive, both with his face and his body. This is a very different performance from Roddy McDowell, whose facial expressions were limited by his prosthetic mask, so his acting had to come almost entirely from his voice. Serkis, on the other hand, barely speaks in this film and so everything is done visually, yet he completely nails every emotion!
When Serkis isn’t on the screen, you’ll find yourself wishing he was. In fact, none of the humans in Rise come across as anything other than semi-realized, stock characters, and that’s the biggest weakness of Rise. The human characters are either dull, evil or stupid. (The exception being John Lithgow, who is likable and sympathetic.) The circus orangutan has more depth than any of the humans. At least in Conquest, we had the wonderful Ricardo Montalban as Aldo. (To be fair, the human characters were done much better in the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.)
But back to the good stuff: The new film respectfully pays homage to the past and there are numerous winks to the original movie. Felton’s character is named Dodge Landon, and fans of the original film will remember that Dodge and Landon were the two astronauts who accompanied Heston’s Taylor to the Planet of the Apes. “Bright eyes” was the name the Apes gave to the captive Taylor in the first movie. At one point, we see one of the characters watching a Charlton Heston film on TV. There is a chimp here named Cornelia (Similar to Cornelius, from the first film) and the orangutan is named Maurice, after actor Maurice Evans who so masterfully played orangutan scientist Dr. Zaius in the old Heston film. Even some of the iconic lines are used. You’ll recognize them when you hear them.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was cleverly reimaged by director Rupert Wyatt but it retained the social commentary of the original source material. The 1963 novel “La Planete des Singes” by French author Pierre Boulle (which The Planet of the Apes was based on) was a Vietnam allegory, commenting on the oppression of one group by another. The 1968 film with Charlton Heston was made during the 1960s civil rights era, as well as during the cold war, so it had the dual morals…one of racial prejudice and the other a warning of nuclear annihilation. This new film also has social commentary, and has two messages: One is clearly about animal cruelty, and the other is a timely warning to our leaders that you can only step on the little people for so long before even the lowest-of-the-low strike back.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a nearly perfect balance between originality and tribute. It retains the spirit of the old while adding a unique, modern twist. It’s a worthy follow-up to the classic franchise, and in certain respects, even exceeds it. I wish every reboot was this good!
So that’s all for our first Remake Done Right. Next week, we’ll take a look at an example of a remake that doesn’t quite work out, and see what went wrong. In the meantime, be sure to share your thoughts on Hollywood remakes and the ones you think deserve to be in the “good” example column.