Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
US (2011) Dir. Rupert Wyatt
To be honest Hollywood blockbusters and I haven’t got along too well over the past decade or so, largely due to most of them being “reboots”, remakes or just plain awful. So when this “reboot” of the franchise which began with the classic Planet Of The Apes starring Charlton Heston in 1968 arrived in 2011 I barely gave it a second glance. With the current hullabaloo surrounding its highly praised sequel in cinemas now and the fact it was on TV I decided to see what the fuss was about.
Acting as an origins story for the 1968 classic, we meet scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) who is being sponsored by a biotech company Gen-Sys to find a cure for brain illnesses by experimenting on chimpanzees. His ambitious ALZ-112 drug has given a chimpanzee named Bright Eyes incredible intelligence and cognitive skills on a par with humans, leading Will to conclude the drug could cure Alzheimer’s. When Bright Eyes launches a sudden violent attack on her keeper and is shot dead, Will discovers she was protecting a baby no-one knew she had.
Will takes the baby chimp home and names him Caesar, noticing he has inherited the effects of the 112 drug. Convinced by Caesar’s incredible progress Will gives his father Charles (John Lithgow), an Alzheimer’s sufferer, the drug which shows immediate effects ridding Charles of his illness. However a few years later the illness returns and when protecting Charles against a violent neighbour (David Hewlett) Caesar bits his finger off and is contained by the authorities at a monkey sanctuary. There Caesar and the other apes are abused by the handler Dodge Landon (Tom Felton), prompting the smart ape to lead his fellow primates in a rebellion against the humans.
Right from the opening minute of this film the audience’s sympathies lie with the apes and even when they finally break loose and go on the rampage 90 minute later one still roots for the apes. Despite the fairly pedestrian plotting and storylines where this film hits the hardest is in the emotional connection that is created between the audience and the primate protagonists – and they aren’t even real!
It’s no secret that modern effects technology has meant the age old methods of men in suits or animatronics interacting with the odd real life animal is now redundant and motion-capture technology combined with CGI has allowed for what is hoped to be seen as an emotional depth never before expressed from a non-human. As ever the go to man for these roles, Andy Serkis, excels as Caesar, drawing on his previous experience as the much larger King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake.
As much as it is up to Serkis to make Caesar as relatable, sympathetic and above all else, as emotive as possible, he still needs a foe which comes in the form of good old corporate greed and ignorant egotistical humans. On more than one occasion Will is forced to fight to prevent his sponsor Jacobs (David Oyelowo) from withdrawing his financial backing, who, like many others, sees the apes as disposable test subjects who will help boost his own bank balance.
In one of the more heartbreaking scenes, when Caesar is locked away in the ape sanctuary run by the unscrupulous Landon (Brian Cox), Will is lead to believe he is leaving his best friend in capable and caring hands. The moment the door shuts behind Will on his way out and the truth is son revealed to Caesar. Considering the appalling conditions, the brutality of the treatment and the bad American accent from Brit Harry Potter actor Tom Felton (who should avoid being typecast as the bad guy), it’s no wonder Caesar decides to strike back – but by using his brains.
The final 20 minutes are a subtle nod to King Kong’s rampage through New York as the ape army do battle on San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. Obviously a few over the top set pieces are thrown in to add some suspense and awe to the drama – the spot with the gorilla and the helicopter springs to mind – but on the whole this is well crafted and laid out fight scene that manages to throw in some raw emotion to up the ante as the apes draw nearer to their goal, which neatly sets up the aforementioned sequel.
It has been reported than a more grim ending was originally shot but this being Hollywood they wimped out and we get a soppy one instead. In many ways that is to be expected due to the rather by-the numbers template the script follows that concedes very early on that this film is about the apes and rightly so. That said aside from the cookie cutter bad guys, the main human cast needed more substance to them which is reflected in the average performances.
James Franco is his usual “blockbuster bland” self spending most of his screen time upstaged by his CGI buddy thanks to another superlative and rich essaying from Serkis. John Lithgow has effortlessly slipped into the gravitas role someone of his calibre deserves while Freida Pinto as Will’s love interest is literally there for her looks alone – a more vapid and innocuous “leading lady” I don’t ever recall seeing in a major film, and her character is a vet who bonds with Caesar!!
Putting aside the homogenised treatment of the script and the human characters, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes does at least achieve its goal of warning us about man trying to play God and in interfering in things we shouldn’t. To that end we have a film that is hugely enjoyable and connects with our consciences concerning animal treatment and I have to admit, I am now keen to see both the sequel AND check out the original 1968 film.
A solid, intelligent and deeply evocative slice of popcorn fodder that will surprise you.