In 2001, Fox first tried to reboot “Planet Of The Apes,” but the Tim Burton-directed film was a misfire, for all the reasons outlined here. Over a decade later the studio tried again, this time on a much more modest scale. They handed the wheel to rising director Rupert Wyatt, the biggest name in the cast was James Franco, and as the title “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” suggested, the story would take its time developing real stakes, rich characters and actions that had real consequences. And not only did treating the material with care lead to a box office hit, ‘Rise’ was also more intelligent than it had any right to be. It was thrilling but brainy, with the story centered on the conditions that would lead to Caesar’s rise. But where do you go from there? In today’s climate, cranking out a quick sequel that picks up where it left off would be the usual course, but Fox has put tremendous trust in series screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (assisted on “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes” by Mark Bomback) who have taken things in a much more interesting direction. ‘Dawn’ picks up a decade since the events in ‘Rise,’ with the apes now firmly in control, providing a new backdrop for the primate driven blockbuster. But what happened narratively in between the two films?
Well, that space between the films is where Fox has been exercising the kind of clever muscles that I wish studios would flex more often. They’ve already issued three short films that show human survival in the wake of the Simian Flu that was spreading rapidly across the globe at the end of ‘Rise.’ And now they’ve filled in much more with “Firestorm” by Greg Keyes, which not only utilizes the somewhat antiquated but still standard movie novelization format, but allows it function not just as a retelling of the film, but as a substantive add on to the experience. Sure, you don’t have to read the book to enjoy the film (or vice versa), but for those looking to get a bit more out of the blockbuster before they see it, or afterward, “Firestorm” exceeds expectations handily.
Picking up not long after the events in ‘Rise,’ the book is a crisp and efficiently written thriller that bounces between two locations: San Francisco and the Redwood forest outside the city. Essentially, the virus created at Gen-Sys that was spreading at the end of ‘Rise,’ is now moving rapidly among the population of the California city (and around the globe). In San Francisco, the horror unfolds from a trio of perspectives: a newspaper reporter, a former police chief running for mayor, and a doctor working in ER. Meanwhile, in the forest, Caesar leads his large band of primates as they forage to survive, uncertain of their fate, and what else humans have left for them. And danger comes in the form of a small band of specially recruited specialists—a mercenary and primatologist among them—tasked with finding Caesar and his gang. But little do the contract hires know, there is a sinister undercurrent to their job, one that has bigger implications to the disease that is rapidly wiping out citizens and destabilizing society at an alarming pace.
And while Keyes keeps the pace moving like clockwork with his brisk writing, “Firestorm” really shines in the spaces between action. Given particular attention is Koba (played by Toby Kebbell in ‘Dawn’), with the author detailing in recurrent flashbacks the horror the young ape faced as a lab subject, having his mother taken away from him, and spending most of his life in a cage where he endured beatings, mutilations and more. Keyes’ account of Koba’s journey from a furiously angry ape who wants nothing but vengeance against all humans, to a thoughtful and wise part of Caesar’s leadership unit, is surprisingly rewarding. In fact, the ape narratives across the board here are far more intriguing than any of human characters, who are largely one dimensional types who mostly serve as functions of the plot. But ultimately, this is also the apes’ story to tell.
The underlying theme of both ‘Rise’ and “Firestorm” (and by all accounts ‘Dawn’) is the cyclical nature of violence, and the consequence of treating animals (particularly primates) as something less than human. And yet, even as surprisingly bleak as “Firestorm” gets (particularly remarkable for what is supposed to be marketable licensed product), there is a sliver of hope, not just for the ape protagonists, who must furiously battle for their survival against a human race on the edge of literal extinction, but from a select few humans too, who can look past the noise of politics and fear around them—and their own savage nature—to see a species that deserves more understanding.
Is “Firestorm” great literature? No. But as far as written material goes for franchises, it’s definitely a cut above the rest. This isn’t just a screenplay with adjectives and verbs shoved in there, but a smartly realized extension of the story, one that is genuinely engaging, infused with a solid sense of dread, and sets a pretty exciting stage for “Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.” And since that’s the only job it has to do, it succeeds admirably. [B]