For a while now we’ve been warned that the Planet of the Apes will rise again. However, after the abomination of Tim Burton’s misplaced attempt to reboot this once cherished franchise, this idle threat was hardly enough to stir any degree of excitement from an audience now familiar with the feelings of disappointment that accompanies these persistent attempts by film studios to cash-in on childhood nostalgia. So maybe it was the rock bottom level of expectations or a sign of the decaying state of Hollywood filmmaking, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is undoubtedly this year’s most accomplished and thoughtful summer blockbuster.
The film opens with an emotionally devastating hunt through the African jungle. As Apes are mercilessly chased through the trees by poachers we quickly realise what we’re observing is a mirror image of the original Planet of the Apes, with the Hunters now the hunted. This pre-emptive warning perfectly sets the scene for what is to be a harrowing origins story.
The action quickly transfers to a San Francisco research laboratory where we’re first introduced to Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist searching for a cure to Alzheimer’s. His work is highly regarded amongst his peers but he has a more personal reason behind these investigations into gene therapy, his father has developed this degenerative disease and he’s desperate to save him from this decline into dementia. The vaccine has so far only been tested on chimps but with the breakthrough of subject 9 Rodman is pushing to take his experiments to the next logical step – human trials.
When a violent incident during a presentation of the virus’s success leads to his research being cancelled and the numerous test subjects being exterminated, Rodman finds himself lumbered with the responsibility of looking after chimp 9’s recently born son, Caesar, the sole survivor of this primate genocide. On taking the young chimp home, Rodman discovers that the drug has been genetically passed down from his mother with Caesar displaying a level of cognitive function that far excels his human counterparts. This revelation forces Rodman to continue his investigations and eventually test his results on his ailing father, whose condition has become critical.
As Caesar continues to grow, this once playful chimp is now a fully grown ape who’s advanced intelligence and strength has rendered him somewhat of an anomaly, who instead of inspiring amazement and wonder incites reactions of fear and confusion. A series of inevitable, yet no less upsetting events lead to this unconventional family being torn apart and despite Rodman’s father’s new found lease for life and the drugs apparent success, Caesar ends up being taken into protective care. He’s never lived amongst other primates and soon finds his flourishing intelligence alienates him from the other apes, evoking a response of anger and eventually rebellion!
Despite this relatively simple set up the film hides a much deeper story. Whilst Franco and Lithgow’s characters resonate with an intensely natural relationship, it’s their bond with Caesar which makes the movie the powerfully impassioned tale it is. This unconventional family dynamic tugs at the heartstrings with the magnitude of a thousand tragedies and whilst Lithgow’s presence may set alarm bells ringing that what’s about to transpire is little more than a darker Harry and the Henderson’s, what occurs couldn’t be tonally further apart. Whilst we as an audience are aware that Caesars childlike state is only temporary and have been well educated throughout cinematic history that nature shouldn’t be tampered with, this pre-obtained knowledge doesn’t prevent the film’s more intensely harrowing scenes from becoming unbearably upsetting. Whether it’s the way this hyper intelligent chimp carves the shape of his bedroom window on the wall of his small, suffocating cage or his expressive face lighting up the moment he’s reunited with his adopted family, the film continually draws you in to its emotionally involving story. Indeed it’s these endearingly compassionate moments which cause the movie to connect with the audience on a human level, a fact that makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes such a success, momentarily causing you to forget you’re watching a special effects driven movie, marketed primarily at an ‘action film’ audience.
The work of WETA digital and the CGI that accompanies this heartbreaking story is of the highest quality. There are countless moments where the subtlety of these effects results in the viewer becoming completely unaware of what has been graphically reproduced and what is real. Most of this praise should be aimed at Andy Serkis, who much like his portrayal of Gollum in Lord of The Rings, has created an incredibly lifelike collection of characters. The final act, in particular the epic battle scene on the Golden Gate bridge, is perhaps the film’s most strikingly accomplished moment of computer generated visuals. Whilst admittedly distracting from the films emotional core and succumbing to the overblown action that many were expecting, it’s hard not to be impressed with these adrenaline fuelled moments of guerrilla warfare sumptuously presented on the screen, even if you’re simultaneously desperate for it to end so we can witness Caesar and Rodman finally being reunited.
The original Planet of the Apes appeared during a golden age of Science fiction where effects played second fiddle to important social warnings. The same underlying messages about animal cruelty and the progress of science overstepping the natural order of things are all here, once again showing that Science Fiction doesn’t need to rely on overzealous effects to be truly groundbreaking. It’s this fact that makes the visually spectacular final scenes a mild let down, feeling as it does, like pandering to the modern obsession of dumbing everything down for audiences who demand pure escapism and nothing more. However, the film’s constant nods to the sixties are an endearing collection of in-jokes which seem perfectly fitting with the film’s opening direction towards a more intellectual approach to genre reboots. From the television’s screening moments from the original Planet of the Apes film’s, Caesar crafted a miniature Statue of Liberty to the less obvious references to 2001: A Space Odyssey ‘dawn of man’ scenes, it’s clear that director Rupert Wyatt understands the genre and how to perfectly use this speculative, science based medium to both titillate and mentally stimulate.
The film isn’t without its flaws though. The script leaves little for the periphery characters to work with. Our high powered business man is exactly that whilst Rodman’s love interest seems to have been injected into the narrative for no reason other than to add a much needed female presence in an otherwise masculine weighted cast. However, with so much time spent developing the films central triangle of characters (Rodman, his father and Caesar) it’s understandable that there’d be victims in the script elsewhere, with this focus on an unconventional family preventing the film from falling into an archetypal action movie parody that was little more than a visual effects showcase.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes demands you invest yourself emotionally into its heartbreaking tale of family loss to truly appreciate it. Perfectly creating a scenario from which the franchises latter films could quite easily have originated from, the movie is a surprisingly successful reboot that feels both exceedingly human and visually exciting. Without doubt this is the most enjoyable and accomplished movie of the summer, not because of its admittedly stunning visual effects but rather its compassionate approach to storytelling. The film’s ability to create one of the most endearing and loveably artificial characters since E.T is what turns this generic prequel into a film which could easily stand alone as a perfect example of science fiction film making.
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Stars:James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto
Runtime: 105 min