Director Rupert Wyatt’s 2011 film Rise of the Planet of the Apes took everybody by surprise because it wasn’t complete garbage. All outward appearances should have raised some immediate red flags about it going in: it’s a pseudo-remake/prequel/reboot that takes place before any of the other films and addresses how the apes became super smart and took over the world. Oh, also, it starred James Franco. Messing with the Planet of the Apes canon isn’t anything sacrosanct — after all, the four sequels/prequels of the original franchise became increasingly weirder as they went on, and it was all effectively buried by Tim Burton’s 2001 clumsy remake — but to bring it back still came out of nowhere and reeked of desperate studio maneuvering to resurrect a moribund property that still had some brand recognition. But what we saw onscreen turned out to be a pretty refreshing and unique telling of the ape origins that showcased some beautiful special effects, and that in itself was a small miracle.
Ostensibly, RotPotA was a reboot, but for all intents and purposes here I’ll refer to it as a prequel that began a storyline working its way to the world of the ’68 PotA. If you think about it that way, RotPotA truly worked on all levels because it managed to never suffer from “Prequel-itis.” Easily put, prequel-itis is when a movie is ostensibly ruined by the fact that you know how it will end up simply because it is a prequel. The drama won’t work on the audience because we already know the far-reaching outcome of the narrative, which makes any dramatic turns or protagonists-in-peril null and void just because it’s obvious who stays and who goes to get the characters set into the original’s storyline. For example, the Star Wars prequels are the most egregious examples of films suffering from prequel-it is—Anakin was always going to be Darth Vader, Obi Wan was always going to end up being Ben Kenobi on Tatooine, Yoda would inevitably be found in that hovel on Dagoba—but for some reason it wasn’t so obvious with the Apes prequel. It wasn’t pre-determined to fail.
There aren’t any direct characters linking the movies (yet), but we know that the titular planet is earth because Charlton Heston yelled about it at the end of the ’68 movie and because that infamous Rod Serling-penned reveal of the Statue of Liberty has become ingrained in our pop culture conscience, but that doesn’t necessarily take away from our enjoyment of Caesar’s rise to eventually take over the planet from the humans in the new movies. RotPotA and director Matt Reeves’ upcoming continuation, [Dawn of the Planet of the Apes](movie:322904), take a similarly focused approach to the prequel format like Star Wars.
Episodes I-III focus on Anakin while the new Apes movies focus on Caesar with both building towards a pre-determined outcome, but the Apes movies succeed because of the way in which they deal with that outcome.
The key is that the new Apes movies don’t completely hinge their narratives on the end result. It isn’t about humans conclusively finding out that apes will rule the world, it’s about the film’s acknowledgement that that outcome is inevitable. The fact that the apes take over earth is but a background detail within the established storyline of the world in complete disarray following the viral outbreak at the end of RotPotA (a detail ingeniously set up using graphics during that film’s closing credits).
The new film takes place 10-15 years later, with humans in a post-apocalyptic society trying to at least coexist with the apes until the shit hits the fan and the real fun begins (there’s something just plain awesome about the imagery of seeing an ape ride a horse while wielding a machine gun, isn’t there?). The apes are seen as an unstoppable force, and from within that planting of dramatic seeds—the apes’ intelligence steadily increases, they eventually develop a complete hatred of humans, they realize their physical (and maybe mental) superiority to humans—the character details are filled in with Caesar as the main story hub.
We’ve come a long way from Pierre Boulle’s original 1963 novel La Planète des singes, and I’m glad we’ve made it this far. The new Apes movies take the original idea and spin it into some great summer movie spectacle on their own terms. WhetherDawn of the Planet of the Apes
is any good remains to be seen, but at least the narrative focus of the film is a continuation from the perfect set up byRotPotA
. Let’s just hope this time they don’t shoehorn in a “Damn dirty apes” line.