Tim Burton’s update of The Planet of the Apes 10 years ago, dressing up A-list actors in hairy costumes and a preposterous ending put paid to a reboot to the much-loved franchise. Burton’s movie lacked the dark overtones the director was renowned for and had none of the camp charm of the original, leaving a soulless Hollywood blockbuster. But nothing is normally more soulless than a Hollywood prequel, usually full of by-the-numbers plotting and characterisation as it plods towards a pre-determined end with a few winks along the way. Incredibly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t one of them: helmer Rupert Wyatt brings us a well-acted, engaging origins story with genuine emotion behind all the CGI apes and creative action scenes.
The Rise of the Planet of the Apes starts with the obvious to overcome the stumbling block of how any ape could develop into world leaders and cheat evolution: genetically-enhanced chimpanzees are being tested on in the quest to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. The lead scientist of the project Will Rodman (James Franco) is determined to make a breakthrough to help his dad, Charles (John Lithgow), who has long been struggling with the disease and causes problems at home on a regular basis. Will thinks he’s onto a winner with his latest serum, however in a presentation to the board of the pharmaceutical company he is developing a drug for, an ape escapes causing chaos and shutting down the project – including killing the test subjects. But when a baby chimp is found in the cages, Will risks his professional future by taking him home and continuing the experiments outside an authorised lab.
A well-acted, engaging origins story with genuine emotion.
The tests go well and Will is delighted as his dad’s Alzheimer’s is cured – though for all the success, Will’s adopted chimp son Caesar longs for the outside. As a by-product of the experimentation, Caesar becomes highly intelligent, able to speak in sign language to Will and Charles and growing a deep understanding of the world around him. Unsettled by his pet status, things get worse for Caesar when he lashes out at a neighbour trying to protect Charles. Caesar is immediately locked up in an ape sanctuary run by father-son team John and Dodge Landon (Brian Cox and Tom Felton respectively) who mistreat their captives and keep them in squalid conditions. It is here Will’s experimentation on Caesar begins to take hold as he begins to communicate with his fellow apes and eventually lead their mutiny against their tormentors: the sign of things to come later in the series – and that’s the point.
The Rise of the Planet Apes can’t help but be intrinsically linked to the original films and the scenes of the apes smashing up police cars, fighting cops and wreaking havoc with the natural order is played out with suitable aplomb. But where Wyatt’s prequel scores big is in the dramatic element you might have expected to fall by the wayside at the expense of glossy effects. Andy Serkis excels as Caesar, just as he did as the CGI Gollum, and there’s real emotion felt between him and Will despite being a digital character. Franco and Lithgow add another dramatic element while Will’s love interest Caroline (Freida Pinto) helps put an outsider’s take on what’s going on. Coupled with the commentary on how far it is right to push science when the outcome could be mankind’s downfall and we have an intelligent blockbuster which sets up anticipated sequels. Now that’s progress.