There was no reason to expect that was any further gold to be mined from the Planet Of The Apes franchise. As popular as it once was, the Apes series is often dismissed as camp by modern viewers (Your Humble Reviewer would argue otherwise) – and Tim Burton’s awful 2001 remake of the original film should have been the final nail of the coffin. Thankfully, 20th Century-Fox’s refusal to give up on this franchise’s profitability has resulted in a reboot that actually redeems that usually odious term: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is not only a good film, it’s also thematically daring and emotionally intense in ways you’d never expect from a major studio blockbuster.
As the title suggests, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes chooses the very beginning of the saga to begin its rebooting process. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a drug that allows the brain to repair its own damaged cells. He’s got a personal stake in its success because his father Charles (John Lithgow) is suffering from Alzheimer’s Syndrome. Unfortunately, his presentation of a prototype goes awry when his test subject ape goes on a rampage and is shot down. Only after the project is shut down does Will discover why the ape attacked – she had just had a baby and was trying to protect it.
Feeling equal parts guilt and a desire to continue his work, Will brings the baby ape home and names it Caesar – and this is where the story really begins. Emboldened by Caesar’s unusual intelligence, Will tests the formula on Charles. He makes a miraculous recovery and all is happy for a short while until he starts to fade. Will gets lost in trying to improve the formula, neglecting both Charles and Caesar – and when Charles gets in trouble due to Alzheimer’s-induced confusion, Caesar tries to defend him and ends up in an animal control facility. Picked on by some fellow apes and an often cruel staff, Caesar goes from heartbroken to angry and uses his extraordinary intelligence to plot a revenge that will change the future of both man and ape.
The end result is full of surprises for anyone expecting the usual mindless summer blockbuster. Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes has action at strategic story points but that isn’t what drives its engine. Instead, it is more interested in being a character study – and the character in question is Caesar. He is not treated as a tool for easy audience manipulation – instead he is treated as a compelling, three-dimensional person with an emotional/psychological arc that is rich and involving as any human character you would care to mention.
The human-driven side of the story pales in comparison, with those characters portrayed in a simple manner where they function more as catalysts to the twists and turns of Caesar’s story. This is a sticking point for some but it seems like a deliberate design to Your Humble Reviewer’s eyes. Beneath the scientific elements, the story is constructed like a fable about the loss of innocence: Caesar is the beautiful naïf who is robbed of his innocence by the actions of humans who sacrificed their humanity a long time ago. Even the essentially likeable and decent Will hurts Caesar by being inattentive at key moments and deceiving him. Without getting into too many plot specifics, the story daringly suggests that man has essentially abdicated his right to rule the planet – and the behavior of most of its human characters reflect that idea.
As a result, it is easier to focus on Caesar as the key element in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – and the film invests its energy in making him a figure worth observing. The CGI effects used to bring Caesar to life are as inspired as they are seamless. Better yet, the skillful work of motion control actor Andy Serkis gives him a convincing physicality that conveys an often staggering depth of emotion. As a result, it’s virtually impossible to not be moved by Caesar’s plight – and don’t be surprised if you find yourself cheering this special effects creation on.
Amongst the humans, James Franco does solid work as the story’s archetypal Doctor Who Plays God, admirably underplaying in a role that had plenty of room for crass melodrama. Frieda Pinto is essentially window dressing as Will’s love interest but she’s compelling whenever the film requires it. The same could be said for David Owelowo as Will’s domineering boss or Brian Cox as the callous owner of the animal control facility. The best of the human performances comes from Lithgow, who does a convincing job of enacting the suffering caused by Alzheimer’s syndrome in a role that is brief but crucial to the storyline.
Finally, it helps that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is directed with great visual imagination by Rupert Wyatt. He’s not afraid to follow the script’s lead of making the apes the heroes and brings an unexpectedly lyrical touch to the storytelling. As a result, the key moments of Caesar’s journey from babe in the woods to battle-hardened leader play with a surprising degree of pathos.
Wyatt also handles the film’s handful of effects-fueled action scenes with a keen sense of control: unlike a lot of CGI blockbusters, every setpiece here is staged in a way that keeps the action coherent and the audience emotionally engaged (see this one with a crowd if you can to get the full effect). If there’s a criticism to be made, it’s that Wyatt lets one big in-joke reference to Planet Of The Apes trample on a big dramatic moment – however, that’s a minor complaint when you consider how much he gets right.
In short, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a challenging, emotionally demanding film at a time of year when you never see either one of those qualities at the multiplex (especially in a sci-fi/action tentpole movie). Your Humble Reviewer hopes that reboot-happy Hollywood will take note of why this film works so well when it reworks its next franchise.