The apes rise, that much is true, but they have yet to conquer. A future dominated by primates is still a glint in a chimpanzee’s eye. This isn’t your father’s Planet of the Apes.
Fox’s franchise reboot has been hesitant to call itself a prequel, divorced from the previous five films and Tim Burton’s poorly-judged 2001 remake. This is the origin story we were denied by the 1968 original; an adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s sci-fi novella that observed human politics via our closest relatives. It also delivered a brutal twist ending that remains infamous and somewhat untouchable.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes maintains the sociopolitical underpinnings of Boulle’s creation, while delivering a full-throttle slice of escapism that resuscitates a well-trodden idea. Against all odds, it’s the best stab at the concept since Charlton Heston’s fateful discovery on a beach 43 years ago.
As is customary with any apocalyptic scenario, the end comes with the best of intentions.
Well-meaning geneticist Will Rodman (James Franco) has discovered what he believes to be a cure for Alzheimer’s, a drug that boosts the intelligence of test chimps but creates a fatal virus in the process. After an early embarrassment that leaves the lab in disarray, he is forced to take his work home with him; raising baby chimp Caesar (a mo-capped Andy Serkis) into adulthood. It soon becomes clear that this particular ape is extraordinarily smart.
Following a series of aggressive incidents, Caesar is taken away to an ape sanctuary, which houses hundreds of chimps, orangutans and gorillas. Here, he is viciously mistreated by owner Landon (Brian Cox) and his son, an odious little shit named Dodge (Harry Potter‘s Tom Felton). Slowly but surely, Caesar plots both an escape and a revolution.
Rise is praise-worthy at a time when Hollywood blockbusters have little interest in characterisation and pacing. The set pieces evolve organically from the plot, with an investment in the protagonists that will allow even the harshest film buff to overlook the insanity of it all. Which isn’t to say that Director Rupert Wyatt doesn’t bow to mainstream demands; this is a fast picture that hurtles toward its effects-heavy coda. You get the sense that it was a longer, fuller film at one point, making the prospect of an extended cut inevitable.
Wyatt feeds the exposition relentlessly, bringing us up-to-speed on a world that feels slightly removed from our own. Let’s call it the not-too-distant future. There are great hints at where the sequels might take us, as well as a few unsubtle references to previous films, including a shuttle mission to Mars that should come into play later. The director doesn’t over-do the futurism, grounding the film in a hyper-reality.
There are a few missteps along the way. Years flash by as the narrative strands come together, encompassing the better part of a decade, yet the characters never seem to age. A few graying temples could have made their eternal youth less of a distraction.
Also, Frieda Pinto’s love interest is completely superfluous, and her character could have been excised from the story without changing a thing. She seems to be filling in for Linda Harrison’s mute beauty, Nova, from the original. Her lack of importance is rather insulting.
A few critics have attacked Franco’s performance, and while he is a rather bland hero, he never derails the experience. The Spider-Man star is a suitable lead for this story, managing to deliver silly lines with a straight face and react to non-existent special effects with his dignity intact. Rodman’s interplay with his Alzheimer-stricken father (a typically brilliant John Lithgow) is nicely handled by Franco and Wyatt, giving the character a personal stake in the story.
Yet, it is the apes who bag all the glory.
Serkis manages to overcome his CGI makeover as Caesar, and it must be said that his physical presence on the set provides a weight to the chimp’s actions that may not have existed otherwise. The computer boffins wring a great deal of nuance out of the character’s facial expressions, and the effects are first-rate throughout. While a part of me desires a return to practical make-up in the sequels, Weta can sleep soundly in the knowledge that they’ve pulled off apes as realistically as possible.
The last act, in which the title terrors lay waste to San Francisco, is quite possibly the finest sustained action sequence of the Summer (sorry, Michael Bay). Wyatt completely sells the primal power of the apes and the sight of a gorilla going all Rambo on a helicopter is just too bad-ass not to mention. The social sub-text goes out the window and spectacle takes over, delivered with a great deal of verve from one of our finest up-and-coming directors.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t as thought-provoking as previous entries in the inter-species saga, and it falls short of greatness. But it is exceedingly entertaining and succeeds as a franchise relaunch. The pieces are in place for a truly spectacular return to the “planet of the apes.” Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long for another visit.