Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

Almost ten years to the day since Tim Burton’s failed “re-imagining” of 20th Century Fox’s venerable simian sci-fi franchise was released, director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have intelligently reengineered the series with Rise of the Planet of the Apes and re-launched it with new life. Even better, this origins tale not only respects and embellishes the ideas behind the original series, it also works as a thought-provoking science-fiction thriller in its own right – with or without its famous monkey moniker. In this respect it’s possibly the best film to bear the Apes title since the Charlton Heston-starring classic, and certainly the best film of this summer’s crop of blockbusters.

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Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist working to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, driven in part by the suffering of his own father (John Lithgow). When testing on a chimpanzee candidate goes awry and his project is shut down, Rodman is forced to take in a baby chimpanzee, whom he names Caesar and raises in his own home. After several years, the now super-intelligent ape Caesar (Andy Serkis, on motion capture duty again) is involved in an incident which forces him in to captivity in an animal rescue centre run by the unscrupulous John Landon (Brian Cox) and his son Dodge (Tom Felton), and their punishing regime pushes an alienated Caesar in to revolt.

For once it’s nice to see a big Hollywood production not run away screaming from some real science. A good portion of the film is spent in labs and men with white coats, and there’s a pleasing scientific milieu which grounds what might otherwise be a rather outlandish tale. Even when the apes do eventually rise, credibility remains intact. The tight script is actually something of a marvel: it strikes just the right balance between Hollywood action, thought-provoking sci-fi and genuine human drama – not unlike the 1968 original.

It has been said that Rise… is in many ways a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the earlier series, which depicted the beginnings of the ape uprising that brought about the “upside down” world which Heston encountered. This is true in part, though it abandons the disease that wiped out cats and dogs. But Rise... also looks to the third film, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, just as much: there are the present day scientists baffled by the concept of intelligent apes, as well as the brutal imprisonment of the intelligent ape in the confines of a zoo with their unadjusted brethren. Caesar initially wants nothing to do with his own species – he has far more in common with his human owners. It’s the transition of his sympathies from humankind to his own kind which is so captivating.

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Caesar is by a long stretch the most sympathetic character, and the film’s chief triumph is to win the audience over to his side by illustrating his humanity. The irony of an ape being a better human being than other humans was one of the ingenious ideas at the centre of the first film, and indeed Pierre Boulle's novel. At the start we see Caesar's mother being captured in the wild and then subjected to Rodman’s experiments. Caesar’s curiosity about the outside world is rewarded with fear and violence, and even when he is safely under lock and key he is subjected to physical and emotional pain. Serkis’ performance is superb, regardless of how obscured it is by CG effects. The effects themselves are largely excellent – perhaps not perfect, but considering the large number of CG apes called for, they do the job just fine.

The only weak points are one or two overly explicit and highly unnecessary references to the earlier films (a couple of lines are directly ported from the 1968 classic and don’t work all that well in their new context), and Tom Felton’s performance, which is simply a reprise of his brattish Draco Malfoy with a dodgy American accent. There are one or two more subtle nods which work better and which hint at the direction any sequel might go in. The challenge for the filmmakers is to craft a sequel that does justice to such a fine setup.

Overall

8

out of 10

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