Remakes and Reboots Redux: Part 1

Off The Top of My HeadRise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

In my very first series of posts on RevPub I detailed what I thought made a remake, reboot, or sequel successful. In the modern film environment it’s easy to see why that’s important. Over this past weekend I watched three films that made me want to go back and revisit this concept. The first two were excellent (one a reboot/prequel and its subsequent sequel) and the last one dreadful and all helped prove the point of what makes the “re-” genre work and what makes it fail. This week I’ll start with the successes: Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

Few films are as iconic, not a word to be used lightly, as the 1968 Planet of the Apes. I’d say it’s up there with The Godfather and Scarface for quotability and nearly invented the modern shocker twist ending. It’s a product of its cold war time period, but many of the lessons it professes are still valid and it largely still holds up, even if many of the film making and special effects may seem dated.
There were a number of less-than-stellar sequels and even the Tim Burton remake from 2001, so when a new one was announced it felts like territory that had been over-traveled. The first film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a pleasant surprise…and an impressive film in its own right.
Part reboot, part prequel, it does everything a film in this kind of category should. It pays proper homage to the original, making small references, quoting, and even foreshadowing the previous film, and never NEVER once makes light of the original film or attempts to outdo or show up a film more than 40 years old.
Apes movies are in the “monster” genre I feel and in many ways the latter half of the first movie and the entire second film feel like a far more original extension of the zombie genre. These kinds of monster movies are only as effective as their human characters. In the first film the human cast, led by James Franco and supported by John Lithgow, Brian Cox, and Freida Pinto are compelling in their positive and negative qualities. Andy Serkis, of Gollum fame, is a show stealer as Caesar, the real star of the movie and the character in whose story we are invested. Like his role in the Lord of the Rings however his performance is lost in CGI, though I would wager echoes of his emotions shine through. This is very similar to the stories I remember hearing about how difficult it was for Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter to emote behind layers of thick prosthetic make up.
The story itself is character-based, always pushed on my characters (mostly Caesar) responding to events and actively making choices and deciding, rather than having choices thrust upon him. Not only that but one actually feels far more attached to him than to the human characters, even those we like, because of how well he is portrayed, both in the writing and in the performance.
Furthermore it fills in plot holes from the original such as why the apes speak English, use human-style tools, and how they progressed so quickly. It also skillfully updates the setting from a cold war nuclear age to a 21st century biological age without detracting from the original purpose or even re-writing the events of the canon.
All in all it’s a terrific reset to a legendary film, and compelling to watch for fans of the original and just those seeking some great entertainment.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes succeeds where the sequels to the original film largely failed in that it is actually a good movie. Dawn picks up where Rise left off, telling the story of how the newly self-emancipated apes and the remnants of humanity come into conflict with each other, and how even in an idealized setting, one under perfect leadership and the best altruistic foundations, selfishness and violence can creep in. It’s a perfect extension of both the ideology and story of the first film and progresses us more and more toward the eventuality of the progenitor film. Again the human cast is effective led by Gary Oldman, Jason Clarke, and Keri Russell.
Yes this “reboot/prequel” franchise is a success. It succeeds because it takes what made the original film work, builds upon it, pays proper respect to it, and then tells its own narrative. Most of all these two moves are just well-made, well-designed, well-told stories. They know what they set out to do and do it. A rarity in modern film making…
Next week we go from the sublime to the ridiculous as we look at last year’s remake of another classic film…this one from the 1980s.

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