I don’t think it’s too far off-base to say that no one really expected 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes to be any good. Did we really need a prequel to the other films? Wasn’t Tim Burton’s remake bad enough? But when the film hit theaters, we were all pleasantly surprised to find it was actually quite good, and left us wanting more. Because the film was a hit, bringing in nearly $500 million at the box office, a sequel was quickly put into production and is set to be released in July. If you’ve seen the trailer, it appears that this next film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, is set some ways into the future, deep into the war that will decide who has dominion over the earth – man or beast (Spoiler Alert! The monkeys win.) But that means there’s quite a bit of story left untold. Luckily, Titan Books has released Firestorm, the sequel to the prequel that’s a prequel to the sequel, to help fill in the gaps.
If you didn’t follow my prequel-sequel description there, essentially Firestorm is a bridge novel, that tells the story of what happens in between Rise and Dawn. It mainly deals with the spread of the virus, the breakdown of civilization, and the survival of the apes that went on a rampage at the end of the first film. The story follows a handful of people – a doctor, a journalist, a couple of primatologists, a mayoral candidate, and a band of mercenaries – in the final days of humanity.
San Francisco Crumbles
As we saw during the brilliant end credit sequence of the first film, the virus spreads thanks to an airline pilot, but other than dots on a map, we don’t see what that means to the societies it infects. In Firestorm we see San Francisco crumble, metaphorically and literally, as the “Simian Flu” infects and kills hundreds of thousands of residents in a very brief amount of time. As you might expect, mobs rise up demanding a cure that doesn’t exist, and that’s when things get nasty.
Meanwhile, out in the redwood forest, Caesar and his troop of primates struggle to survive in an environment that’s not made for them. The orangutans need to find fruit, the chimps can’t survive on crickets and grass forever, and the gorillas need more food than any of them if they want to keep their strength up. All the while, they’re being pursued by a Blackwater-esque private military force that has been hired by the mayor to hunt down the apes.
It wasn’t until after I’d read about half the book that I realized this was a bridge novel. Which, when you look at the cover, it’s easy to understand why I might have been confused. So as I was reading it, I kept thinking to myself, “If this is the movie we’re about to see, it’s going to be a disaster.”
We’ve seen the outbreak film before; we know how this goes down. We’ve seen the breakdown of basic civil services, we’ve seen the riots in the streets, we’ve seen the people become animals out of fear. We’ve even seen the covert government operation going on behind the scenes. This is well-worn material that was, quite frankly, covered well enough in the end credit sequence of the first film. We can fill in the blanks as we see the dots on the map grow and disperse. This part of the story really doesn’t need to be told.
The most intriguing aspect, then, is when we’re following the apes. It’s interesting to see inside their minds to get an understanding of how they think, and to see how they’re developing their own community. However, even this can get a little tiresome as we spend an awful lot of time inside the mind of Koba, the angry, one-eyed bonobo that sought vengeance on the humans at GenSys after years of abuse as a lab subject. Judging by the amount of time spent on Koba’s flashbacks, something tells me he’s going to be a key player in the upcoming film. It’s not that he won’t make a good character, but the amount of backstory we got for him was exhausting and rather dull. In this case, less of his past and more of his actions in the present would have better served the character.
As you might have guessed, I wasn’t a fan of Firestorm. There are a few bright spots here and there, but the same story was essentially told during the end sequence of the first film. Any screenwriter worth his salt would have perhaps written this story down, but only as an exercise to make sure all the points connect.
Once they had a first draft, they would have shoved it aside to jump into the meat of the story that will (hopefully) be the more exciting, more original storyline of Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Even the peek inside the minds of the apes wasn’t vital to our understanding of the story. The apes have been abused, and it’s better to be free than locked up in a cage. I get it. Now show me a monkey riding a horse and firing a machine gun already.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes: Firestorm is available in mass market paperback or e-book at Amazon and other fine retailers.