Rise of the Planet of the Apes review: yet more monkey business

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Someone important was clearly watching the Star Trek reboot very closely. Because now, in the form of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there is an attempt to repeat the same magical formula that made JJ Abrams’ movie such a success. Rise performs the same feat, taking a much loved franchise back to the drawing board to suit the needs of a modern audience, all the while respecting its progenitors. If it doesn’t quite capture the joie de vivre of Kirk and Spock’s newly minted escapade, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is still a cut above most blockbusters.

Way back in 1963, Pierre Boulle’s novel Planet of the Apes stoked interest among science fiction fans but Franklin Schaffner’s 1968 adaptation is arguably more famous. Like all great sci-fi movies, it’s not about the futuristic setting but rather what the setting tells us about modern society. In this case, astronaut Charlton Heston’s arrival on a nightmarish planet where apes are placed above humans in the social order strikes a deeply human nerve, disrupting our sense of hierarchy and hinting at some form of regression, reminding us of whence we came. It’s an extraordinary film, even by today’s standards, in which Jerry Goldsmith’s groundbreaking atonal score and even Heston’s jaw-chewing performance become vital components.

The film gave rise to several sequels of varying quality: Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970); Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971); Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972); and Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973). There was even time for a TV series, until Tim Burton’s reviled 2001 remake conspicuously drained all the intelligent ideas out of the concept (it’s easily the least ‘Tim Burton’ Tim Burton movie ever made). Luckily, Rise restores a degree of intelligence to the franchise, and in fact re-interprets material already covered in Escape (intelligent apes interacting with human beings on Earth during modern day and falling foul of them).

It makes sense that a modern reboot starts with a grounding in modern concerns, in this case Alzheimer’s. James Franco (in a nicely understated performance) plays a sympathetic scientist who’s on the verge of developing a successful cure for the disease, one which is already affecting his father (played by John Lithgow). After a test on a chimpanzee goes disastrously wrong, resulting in the animal’s tragic execution, Franco takes her baby home and raises it as his own, discovering that the effects of the drug have passed in utero to the infant. Caesar, as he is dubbed, grows up to be no ordinary chimp but one blessed (or cursed) with increased intelligence.

Caesar himself is the film’s most astonishing achievement and, ironically enough, its most engaging character. As brought to life by WETA Digital’s remarkable motion capture effects and Andy Serkis’ beautifully nuanced performance, Caesar doesn’t just feel like a CGI avatar. There’s a real sense of human emotion contained within the volatile, animalistic whole, a seething mass of contradictions capable of both primal violence and deep-seated compassion. It’s all in Serkis’ eyes, the slightest muscle movements in his face, the movement of his mouth – there’s no rubbery, putty make-up here, groundbreaking as it was in the earlier films.

It’s just a shame that the writing falls down when it centers on the human beings, particularly the secondary characters, most of whom fit the most patronising, annoying archetypes. When Caesar is sent to a brutal primate facility following a violent altercation with a neighbour (events which set in motion Earth’s eventual fate), he is routinely abused by Tom Felton (or is it Draco Malfoy?) who is so ‘eeevil’ he might as well have a Mike Myers style finger raised to his lip. Even more damning is the sense that Freida Pinto (as Franco’s girlfriend) and Brian Cox (as Felton’s corrupt father) could be lifted out of the film and no-one would even notice. Outside of Franco’s quiet turn, the human factor is lacking, something which the first Planet of the Apes certainly was not guilty of (one of its great strengths was its examination of both human and ape).

No, the film is best when centering on our simian counterparts, and as Caesar plots the eventual revolution that will eventually overtake Earth, director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) proves himself a cracking director of action. Blending nimble camera moves with a faultless blend of effects and live action, this is the moment that Rise finally lives up to its billing, revelling in familiar images of old (apes on horseback) and yet re-orchestrating them, setting up what will inevitably be the first of a new franchise, with its own timeline.

Consequently, there’s a degree of carrot dangling going on, with several plot threads left unresolved in an attempt to leave audiences hanging until the sequel (the same issue blighted X Men: First Class). However, that’s not to diminish the numerous strengths of Wyatt’s film. While Rise of the Planet of the Apes is neither a masterpiece, nor up to the level of The Escapist (one of the most gripping British films of recent years), it nevertheless demonstrates enough intelligence to rise above many recent examples of blockbuster cinema.