One of the major failings of any given remake film can be that it tries to go back to the well and produce the same audience reaction from the same beats and twists as the original. How, exactly, is that supposed to work? The Tim Burton remake of Planet of the Apes is a great example, trying desperately to recreate the Statue of Liberty scene from the original, opting for the baffling Aperaham Lincoln scene. How’d that work out?
But I’m not writing about that film this time out. Feel free to check out my thoughts on it in my previous post. No, this time I’ll be tackling Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the first film in the generally well-received reboot franchise.
So how does this film avoid the pitfalls of trying to recreate the magic of the original? Pretty much by sidestepping the whole issue. It’s actually one of the beauties of a reboot, that the opportunity exists to retell the backstory and add flavor to an original while either staying in continuity or rewriting the continuity altogether. (It’s worth noting that sticking with or straying from continuity is a potential landmine. Just ask hardcore Trekkers what they think of JJ Abrams’s Star Trek reboot.)
As I mentioned in the previous post, the weak point of the novel The Planet of the Apes and of the original film franchise was that the story of the apes’ rise to dominance just didn’t ever quite work. I already established (hopefully!) that this unsatisfactory explanation is a crucial bit of Remake Room, and that the Burton remake just hadn’t done a good job of filling it. Enter Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Here it’ll be important to recall what I’m looking for in a remake (or reboot):
- Break new ground
- Pay homage, but don’t go overboard
- Make a good film.
Once again, let’s go one at a time.
Tell your continuity to shut up!
As before, it’s important to look at what the film was going for in order to properly understand what new ground was broken, and the reverse is also true: the new ground that’s broken can give the audience insight into what the film was going for. (It’s a measure of how effective the storytelling is or isn’t.)
In this case, the rise of motion capture (better termed “performance capture”) gave a golden opportunity to dispense with makeup altogether. The job was made somewhat easier by the fact that the apes wouldn’t have to be carrying on conversation or exposition. (Though the sequel Dawn of the Planet of the Apes began to actually do this and pretty much nailed it.)
But the key thing here is that the scale of this film was far less epic than in the original. The filmmakers knew there were a crucial couple of things this film had to do: establish how the apes got smart, and at least drop a clue as to how they could eventually take over.
Gone was the ontological paradox of Caesar arriving from the future. Gone was the ridiculous “cats and dogs died out, we took apes into our homes, and they got smart” bullcrap from the original series (and book). All this was replaced with something that’s pretty tropey but still works: medical experimentation gone awry.
But did this film know where it came from? Definitely, though some of the nods may have gone too far.
Now this is nodracing! (sorry, can’t help myself)
The screenplay for this film was littered with Easter Eggs any superfan of the original series could enjoy, especially on multiple viewings. Here are a few off the top of my head:
- Television “breaking news” about the Icarus Mission, a nod to the mission led by Taylor.
- The orangutan named “Maurice,” a reference to the actor who portrayed Dr. Zaius in the original.
- The bonobo named “Rocket.” Get it? Rocket ship from the original? Hilarious.
- The Primate Shelter flunky watching what appeared to be The Ten Commandments starring one Chuck Heston.
Even something like the nickname of Caesar’s mother (“Bright Eyes”) is a quality reference, though it skirts a bit close to the edge. But because there’s an in-film explanation (change in eye color is a consequence of the drug therapy), it works. And building on that, it gives a shorthand for the audience to recognize when Caesar successfully upgrades his ape buddies by gassing them with the ALZ therapy. It’s really the best kind of reference; it works as a nod, but also serves the plot of the film.
For balance, I should mention my least favorite reference. Did we need the “stinking paws” line? If so, did it have to be delivered by Draco Malfoy (holding a stun wand, BTW, which was kind of awesome), who pronounced it “stinking pawr off me”? (Fun fact, that pronunciation is called “intrusive R.” Knowing is half the battle.)
But since I love this movie, I should admit that the shakiness of that reference is more than bolstered by its being followed by my single favorite nod: Caesar says “No!”
For the fan of the original films (particularly Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), the in-canon first word spoken by an ape was “No.” Awesome.
If you haven’t gathered it yet, I’m a huge fan of this movie. Which leaves my final point about making a good movie a foregone conclusion.
Start small and build.
Bottom line: It’s a good film. Part of the reason it works is that it doesn’t go for too much. Yes, there’s a battle at the end, which I objected to in the Burton remake, but this one actually served the plot. Besides, the ape tactics were rad.
This film shouldn’t have worked. It had the weight of nostalgia for the original working against it. It had a previous crappy remake working against it (though perhaps the 2001 film lowered the bar somewhat…giveth and taketh away).
And this is where the smaller scale really works for this film. As I mentioned, the film had to establish two things: how the apes got their smarts, and how the humans were weakened. It hit both out of the park. I particularly love that the latter point about the Simian Flu doesn’t beat the audience over the head. In fact, I actually missed it the first time because I left before the mid-credits scene establishing the spreading disease. Curious if anybody else brain-farted on that one.
Of course, the small scale still doesn’t work if there isn’t a compelling protagonist (as in the Burton remake). Here we have a great one. One of my favorite moments in the film is the P.O.V. shot from inside Caesar’s box, marking the transition from the James Franco temporary protagonist to our real hero.
If there’s a weak point to the film, it’s probably that the human characters get somewhat short shrift, the weight of the development falling on Caesar. But to me, at least, the human characters were good enough to make it to the hand-off to Caesar.
So, there you have it. One perfectly-balanced film series. Classic original, crappy remake, good reboot.
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I figure since my wheelhouse is adapted SF, I should go out of my comfort zone for the next one. So while I’d love to go right into dissecting the series of films with The Thing in their titles, I can’t just yet. Instead, I may follow up on that hint about the Star Trek reboot and cover Wrath of Khan and Into Darkness. The needs of the many and all that. Yeah, let’s do that.
(Though I may do an interstitial post giving some analysis of some upcoming remakes before they actually come out. Maybe lay out some ways they could be awesome or brutal.)
In the meantime, I’d welcome your comments on the Apes franchise, particularly the reboots. Where do you see the series going? At this point, having told the origin of the apes, there really isn’t anywhere to go with retelling the story of the original film. Where’s the mystery? So I hope they never go that direction. I’m interested in what you think on that point.