Thursday, 11 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Will Rodman is on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. His drug, AZ-112, may be the cure to Alzheimer’s, but his chimpanzee test subject turns hostile and the experiment is finished. However, she was merely protecting her child, who Will is forced to take home and rescue. Will lives with his father, himself suffering from Alzheimer’s, who takes a shine to the intelligent young chimp and names him Caesar. Over the years, Caesar grows older and wiser, whilst Will’s experimental drug appears to cure his father. However, Caesar is growing too smart for his own good, and after a misunderstanding involving a neighbour, he is sent to a sanctuary. It’s not long, though, before Caesar is using his intelligence to plot his escape with the other mistreated apes...

The Planet of the Apes franchise is legendary. The Tim Burton remake is, frankly, forgettable, but the original five films are solid. The original is a true classic. ‘Beneath the...’ is an apocalyptic horror film. ‘Escape from...’ was silly but good fun. ‘Conquest of...’ is a revolution-filled thriller and thoroughly misunderstood. ‘Battle for...’ showed signs of a failing franchise and ended the original series on a sour note. It makes sense that it would be brought back now, what with the advanced special effects and CGI on offer and that it has the potential to spark up a long dormant franchise with multiple sequels. For all of that to happen though, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is going to have to be good. So is it? Well, quite simply, it is good. Really good.

The interesting thing about this film is that it takes a new spin on the story of apes rising up against their human oppressors. Rather than have actors dressing as apes and talking, representing the evolved ape, the apes here are entirely CGI. They are all motion captured, which gives them realistic movements and facial expressions. The problem they were faced with going down this road, creating apes as we know them, was that there was no way of getting them to communicate with the humans. Enter Caesar, plot device de jour. Caesar is born with the Alzheimer’s drug changing his mind, so he learns sign language and develops superior intelligence. Therefore, we have a link between species, and the overwhelming plot gap is bridged.

This all comes down to yet another phenomenal mo-cap performance by Andy Serkis, then man who brought Gollum to life (and will do again in the two upcoming Hobbit films). He gets the mannerisms exactly right, and never over-exaggerates the facial expressions, keeping Caesar more ape than human in that regard. James Franco is deadly serious in his role as Will, not his usual laid-back stoner character, and he puts in a solid performance. He proves himself to be more than a one-trick pony and takes a lot of cues from his 127 Hours performance here in his facial expressions and mannerisms. Frieda Pinto does well enough as the female lead, and John Lithgow is convincing as Will’s Alzheimer’s stricken father. An honourable mention goes to Tom Felton in his first big post-Potter role as the nasty son of the sanctuary owner. Apparently he plays a bastard well, who knew?

At just under 100 minutes, this isn’t too long and offers enough to keep an audience interested throughout. My only slight problem with this, intelligent apes aside, is how long it takes to develop the idea that the drug is revolutionary and that Caesar is smart. It’s an idea which is brought across to you in the first 20 minutes and yet it still goes on explaining that the “drug is experimental” and that “Caesar has advanced intelligence”. We get it, we do. It takes a while to reach where everyone knows it’s going, where everyone wants it to go, and frankly you’ll be relieved when it does get there. I did like the character of Caesar though, the evolution of his intelligence is handled well and he is a human enough character that you begin to associate and sympathise with him by the end. Of course, the end is well written to leave it open for potential sequels, but then it wouldn’t be a PotA film if it didn’t. Also, there are numerous nods to the past: Mention of a missing space mission, a Statue of Liberty, and even the immortal line “Take your stinkin’ paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” I’ll be honest; the delivery of the line made me completely mark out, the film won me over there and then.

Overall, it’s a fairly solid summer blockbuster, definitely one of the best this year, as it offers a coherent and well-structured narrative and, movie logic aside, neatly explains itself without bordering on the ridiculous. The apes looked good, an improvement on how fake they looked in the trailers, which was a pleasant surprise, and they were given true emotion and heart. This is close to being a great film; it’s an engaging and intelligent film which you can’t really go too far wrong with. This was a really pleasantly surprising film, it completely caught me off guard as to how good it was, and it's ended up being the best film I've seen in months. If you had told me back in April when the trailer was released that this would end up being my favourite film of the summer, I'd have slapped you in the face and called you a liar. I'd say I deserve the slap now.

Rating: ****1/2