James Franco's 'Apes' redeems the reboot
A little more than a year ago, there were a lot of summer '11 movies that filmgoers could look forward to. Rival comic-book vehicles such as "Thor" and "Green Lantern" were gaining buzz, and so was a star-laden novelty such as "Cowboys & Aliens." There were also, inevitably, new installments in the "Transformers" and "Harry Potter" franchises.
Two movies that almost no one was talking about? "X-Men: First Class" and "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." The films, both from 20th Century Fox, were being accelerated to the multiplex (both had barely begun casting), possibly to their detriment. Most big studio movies, after all, take years to bake; great reinventions often take even longer.
Maybe more important, both movies fit squarely in the category of the reboot, Hollywood's euphemism for a do-over of a brand that had only recently run its course, as had happened with Brett Ratner's "X-Men: The Last Stand" five years before and Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" a decade prior. (In these instances, both of the reboots were also prequels, though they of course don't need to to be.) And for all of Hollywood's embracing of the reboot, the category had very little track record, let alone anything resembling a successful one.
Yet, this weekend, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" wildly exceeded expectations. The movie scored on nearly ever count: It grossed $54 million, one of the highest summer totals for a movie that wasn't a straight sequel. Critics embraced it -- the James Franco film garnered a robust 81% on Rotten Tomatoes and earned raves from the likes of my colleague Kenneth Turan. And fans really liked what they saw, giving the movie an A- on CinemaScore.
The $54 million for "Apes" was also the second-highest opening for any action-adventure movie this summer that didn't have the benefit of higher 3-D ticket prices. The highest? "X-Men: First Class." That movie scored even higher with critics, notching 86% on Rotten Tomatoes. (There's a corporate-comeback story in all this too -- Hollywood insiders will note Fox's strong summer after the twin disappointments of "Knight & Day" and "The A-Team" in 2010 -- that I'll leave to my colleagues at Company Town.)
Some purists -- this blogger included -- like to decry the reboot as a sign that Hollywood is running out of ideas. But "Apes" and "X-Men" show that we may have been wrong. A reboot can work if the mythology is reinvented creatively -- if we can, in other words, sit in the theater and feel like there was a reason a studio should revisit this story beyond a marketing executive decreeing it so.
What may unite "X-Men" and "Apes" further is that both rolled the dice on directors from outside the studio system -- Matthew Vaughn ("Kick-Ass") and Rupert Wyatt ("The Escapist") each honed their vision with movies outside the Hollywood mainstream. This method isn't foolproof -- Marvel brought on Kenneth Branagh to direct "Thor" and elicited a far more mixed reaction -- but judging by the way many touted the inventiveness of "X-Men" and "Apes," it certainly didn't hurt.
It's a coincidence, but a telling one, that "Apes" came out just one week after "Cowboys & Aliens." Jon Favreau's movie was all about the kind of gamble many of us feel Hollywood should be taking -- a clever idea based on carefully devised source material, not simply a known brand -- as opposed to the reboots it increasingly undertakes. Yet Favreau's so-called original often didn't feel all than new, while, after this weekend, a pair of reboots do.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: A scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Credit: 20th Century Fox