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All Reboots Are Not Created Equal: In Praise of the New ‘Planet of the Apes’

For years now, Hollywood’s obsession with “reboots” has embodied, along with the endless glut of sequels and remakes, the industry’s exhausting refusal to try anything new or original, coasting instead on past successes and established brands. The most egregious example is the Spider-Man franchise, which burned out after three films, only to get a reboot a mere dozen years after it started, recycling much of the same origin story, characters, and narrative beats, but there have been others: The Pink Panther, Friday the 13th, Halloween, A Nightmare on Elm Street, Man of Steel, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, etc. But there are exceptions to every unfortunate trend, from the sequel (The Dark Knight) to the remake (True Grit) to the reboot, and with the second film in the new Planet of the Apes series rolling into theaters this week, perhaps something can be learned about how this kind of thing can be done — and if it should be attempted at all.

The original five-film cycle of Apes movies, adapted from Pierre Boulle’s novel, was immensely popular (and profitable). The initial outing, released in 1968, starred Charlton Heston — doing some of his most overwrought acting, and that’s saying something — and Roddy McDowall, who appeared in four of those initial five outings, always under the remarkable ape makeup that became the series’ trademark. The first film was co-written by Rod Serling, who gave it the kind of wallop twist ending that would become his trademark on TV’s Twilight Zone (nearly-50-year-old spoiler alert): that the distant futuristic planet Heston and his fellow astronauts had landed on was, in fact, Earth itself, centuries after the fall of man and the rise of the ape.

The enjoyable (if occasionally silly) original sequels worked from that premise forward, while filling in backstory and making inventive use of alternate timelines. The final film in the series, Battle for Planet of the Apes, was released in 1973, and the franchise lay dormant for nearly 30 years, until Fox’s first, failed attempt to reboot it, in 2001, under the dubious guidance of Tim Burton. Burton’s wackadoo style was never a good fit for the series, and his Apes is an odd, turgid, listless affair. But in fairness to the filmmaker, it was something of a no-win situation; though the film was billed as a reboot or (more often) a “re-imagining,” it was basically a remake of the ’68 original, robbed of the power of the shocking final twist (which Burton and his screenwriters attempted to re-appropriate, failing miserably).

Still image from "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

Watching the Burton Apes alongside 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes and the new Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a real lesson in the dos and don’ts of a successful reboot. Instead of returning to the familiar narrative of the original film and adding in a few surface flourishes (the Amazing Spider-Man approach, in other words), the new Apes films take a decidedly long view. It’s not enough to merely revisit the planet where apes evolved from man; they’re going to lay out, in detail, how such a thing could happen, starting in the present day.

There are clever little in-jokes for Apes fans peppered throughout the new films (particularly the first one): an ape nicknamed “Bright Eyes” (Heston’s nickname in the original), a shot of protagonist Caesar playing with a Statue of Liberty doll, a recreation of Heston’s notorious “damned dirty ape” line. And some of the story beats mirror the origin story of the initial series; there are echoes of the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, in Rise, and of Battle in Dawn. But these flashes of nostalgia and familiarity aren’t expected to carry the new films — nor should they. They manage to accomplish what few reboots have: to tell an origin story that honors the original work and pleases the superfans, while working as involving, compelling cinema, on their own terms and free of all other associations.

Rise was a nice surprise, a would-be August throwaway that invigorated a dormant series; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is, if anything, an even better film, more thoughtful and emotionally potent while still delivering the summer-movie goods. Set ten years after Rise, it picks up that film’s thread of the “Simian Flu,” a Contagion-like worldwide outbreak that leaves one in 500 humans alive, in a society that’s basically collapsed. The apes, meanwhile, remain in hiding in the redwood forest, drilling for battle and building their own civilization — until a band of human survivors wanders in.

Still image from "Dawn of the Planet of the Apes"

One of Rise’s biggest shocks was that it focused not on human lead James Franco (and thank God he’s not back for this one — talk about a comically inept performance) but on Caesar, the intelligent chimpanzee played, via remarkable motion capture technology, by Lord of the Rings’ Andy Serkis. Dawn follows that pattern, and Serkis rises to the occasion, crafting a delicate performance of genuine intelligence and pathos.

Matt Reeves has proven himself a capable craftsman before, but little in his previous work suggests the skill on display here (aside from the presence of Keri Russell in a major role — all roads lead by to Felicity, you guys). His filmmaking is confident and sure-handed; the picture moves briskly, but it’s not in a big hurry either, and Reeves slows the pace for emotional moments (Caesar and his wife, Russell and her sorta-stepson) of real value. Unlike your typical blockbuster purveyor — insert obligatory Michael Bay shot here — Reeves understands the value of varying the tempo, so that the violence comes in sudden, terrible bursts, and is all the more devastating.

The original Apes novel and films were refugees from an earlier time, where science fiction wasn’t merely a subgenre of action, but a vehicle social commentary and compelling ideas. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a film with much to say — the rich subtext delves into the nature of warfare (a close-up on Caesar’s face in a moment of victory shows not triumph, but regret), leadership (“Fear makes others follow,” Caesar notes), the difficulty of compromise (cooperation between species is possible, were it not for the zealots of both camps), racism and xenophobia (“You telling me you don’t get sick to your stomach at the sight of them?”), and even gun control. That a mainstream movie can have that much on its mind, and still give us the image of an ape, riding a horse, firing a machine gun in each hand while laughing maniacally? Well, friends, that is a summer cinema miracle.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is out Friday in wide release.

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