Based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 novel of the same name, the Planet of the Apes franchise has spanned nearly 50 years with six films, two TV series and comic books to its name. Now, director Rupert Wyatt brings it to a new generation, a feat that Tim Burton attempted (and ultimately failed) in 2001. Fortunately, Wyatt is successful and his vision turns out to be one of the best movies of the year.
Part remake and part reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the story of Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist working on a “cure” to Alzheimers disease. Him and his team use apes as test subjects, and when one who appeared to be reacting positively to his serum runs amok on an important day for the company he works for, Rodman’s boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) orders all the apes to be put down. But when he discovers that the ape went crazy because she had given birth and was protecting her baby, he does the only humane thing and takes the animal home, raising it as his own: he even gives it a name, Caesar. Caesar is no ordinary ape: he’s inherited the intelligence that his mother had been injected with. After a few months, Rodman forms an unlikely friendship with the primate, as does his father, Charles (John Lithgow) who is suffering from the disease he so desperately aims to cure. It’s the partnership with Charles and Caesar that lays the foundations for the apes uprising; after a confrontation between Charles and a neighbour, Caesar defends his friend albeit violently. He’s put into a sanctuary where he’s mistreated by the cruel guard Dodge Landon (Tom Felton, AKA Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter films) and initially Caesar is bullied by the other animals. But over time, he earns their respect, while his dislike for humans grows. With the other apes and his abnormally high intelligence level, Caesar devises a plan to make humans pay for their mistreatment of apes…
As evident from the long winded title, this is an origin story. It’s vaguely linked to the original, 1968 movie but at the same time has it’s own universe much like Christopher Nolan’s revamped Batman series. What R.O.T.P.O.T.A excels in is telling the story of this new universe (which is rumoured to become a trilogy); it boldly sacrifices action scenes to focus on the emotional aspects. That’s not to say there aren’t any action sequences: the final 25 minutes are dedicated to the apes uprising. But whilst these are gloriously entertaining, it’s not the highlight of the movie: that is reserved for the motion capture effects of the apes.
Even from the first trailer, we were informed that the effects would be created by WETA, the company that worked on James Cameron’s 2009 ground breaking sci-fi phenomenon Avatar. At that time, the CGI in the movie looked gorgeous, and questions were asked as to whether they would ever be bettered; Rise of the Apes answers that with a resounding yes. Andy Serkis, who wore the motion capture suit for the likes of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and alpha-ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, is uncanny in his movements as Caesar. The final, combined results of his movement and the talents of the team at WETA are astounding; each primate has its own personality, much like the background characters in Avatar did.
James Franco has all but certified his status as a leading man, and he plies his trade brilliantly here. However, as great as he is, his image as a brilliant scientist is hardly convincing. Also, it’s hard to decide whether to like him for helping Caesar, or condemn him for using his mother and others as test subjects in the first place. John Lithgow, who voiced Lord Farquad in Dreamworks’ Shrek and (apparently) played an important role in TV series Dexter, gives a heartfelt performance as an Alzheimers sufferer, frequently relaying his frustration to the audience. The weakest link comes in the form of Rodman’s love interest, Caroline Aranha played by Frieda Pinto who found fame as ‘Older Latika’ in Danny Boyle’s Oscar winning Slumdog Millionaire. There’s nothing wrong with her in particular, it just seems that her character isn’t entirely necessary, and more development between Caesar and Rodman could have been substituted in its place. This is a minor gripe though, and shouldn’t be seen as a reason to avoid this movie. In fact, there isn’t a reason to avoid it; except if you’ve got a fear of apes, of course.
As I touched upon earlier, don’t expect this to rush to the primates uprising: even when it does, it doesn’t entirely convey a sense of world domination. But that’s okay; we can expect two more movies in this new franchise. This one was never about the fallout of their rise, it simply attempted to chronicle the events that led to that point. And although they’ve been made out to be the antagonists, it’s hard not to support them in their conquest of Planet Earth.
Having the advantage of being released after the main bulk of summer blockbusters, Rise of the Planet of the Apes could have been a rushed, clichéd and forgettable affair. But due to its astounding effects, intelligent subject matter and a script that will leave you having on its every word, it continues the trend of an ‘above average’ cinematic year by being one of the movies of 2011.