Rise of the Planet of the Apes
The Planet of the Apes franchise has, at best, a chequered history. The 1968 original is a masterpiece, obviously, but a slew of increasingly dire sequels put viewers and studios off the mighty monkey motif for thirty-odd years (until Tim Burton inexplicably decided to jam Mark Wahlberg into the mix and further confuse the issue with the weirdest ending of any film, ever). Fast-forward another ten years, and we’re back again – but this time it’s to witness a spectacle like no other. Blending fautless visuals with a compelling story and an extraordinary central performance, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is utterly brilliant.
San Francisco geneticist Will Rodman (Franco) has spent the last five years working on a virus which helps the brain rebuild itself. “We’re calling it the cure to Alzheimer’s”, he optimistically tells the board of directors with the power to carry on funding his research. But Will’s dreams are shot down when an enraged chimpanzee – the test subject for his drug – bursts into the boardroom in a frenzy and has to be put down. Disgraced and disheartened, Will rescues the chimp’s newborn baby and takes it home as a companion for his father (Lithgow), a former virtuoso musician whose rapidly progressing dementia inspired Will’s work.
From his infancy, it’s evident that there’s something very special about Caesar (Serkis). Will trains him to communicate through sign language and watches in awe as Caesar’s cognitive abilities grow at an exponential rate. There is only one explanation; the drug with which his mother was treated passed to Caesar in utero, and in the absence of any illness to fight it’s boosted his intelligence to extraordinary levels. However, when the bestial side of his nature reasserts himself Will is forced to surrender him to a facility where, for the first time, Caesar learns that some humans are to be hated and feared. The success of Will’s work is being recognised, but as his superiors dangerously accelerate the chimp testing programme they can’t seem to see that they’re breeding creatures who are now not only stronger and faster than humans – they’re also just as intelligent. And they have a grudge…
A cursory viewing of the trailer for Rise of the Planet of the Apes might lead you to think that it gives everything away – there’s a very clever chimp, he manages to break some other chimps out of chimp jail, it all kicks off. You’d be right, but that’s not the point any more than, say, the Titanic sinking is the point of Titanic. Rise of the Planet of the Apes manages, largely without dialogue, to tell a unique and touching story which recalls everything from the Gospels to Brave New World; and, crucially, it manages to retain its realism even when dealing with the extraordinary challenge of a non-human central character.
With the sole exception of Freida Pinto’s pointless, underwritten, oh-gosh-we-need-a-female-lead role, there’s nothing to criticise. The plot is ambitious without being sprawling, dealing with classic themes – love, betrayal, all the biggies – and spanning an eight-year timeframe with ease (the accelerated scene in which Caesar grows up had me in tears, it’s a work of art). The script is tight and fluid, making the most of the scenes in which every participant can speak, whilst the scenes between Caesar and Will manage to avoid ending up as mere monologues for James Franco. Franco himself does a decent job as frustrated idealist Will, although John Lithgow is even more memorable as his ailing father.
The star of the show, though, is unquestionably Andy Serkis. Serkis has enormous experience as a motion capture actor (Gollum, Kong etc) but his performance as the revolutionary ape Caesar is a staggering achievement. Caesar is a totally engaging and believable character, whose species frequently seems immaterial – his personality and motivation are as clear as if Serkis was unhampered by a motion capture suit and a blank script. All the apes are convincingly realised (kudos to the ever-reliable Weta Digital), but it is Caesar, interacting with a live-action environment in a way which would have been unimaginable just a few years ago, whose appearance will stay with audiences long after the lights come up.
It almost certainly won’t happen, but I’m hoping we see Rise of the Planet of the Apes on the Academy shortlist next January – whilst big-budget spectaculars are frequently dismissed out of hand (and as far as I know a motion capture performance has never been nominated for an acting Oscar), it’s important to acknowledge those films which shake off accusations of populism to combine mass-market entertainment with genuinely brilliant cinema. Stop looking; this is the film of the summer.