Now, my entire experience of the Planet of the Apes franchise consists of the Troy McClure musical ‘Stop the Planet of the Apes, I want to get off’ in The Simpsons. This let me experience Rise of… without any preconceptions, judging it as a film first and a ‘franchise-film’ second. This approach made me like Tron: Legacy a whole lot more, but left me wanting to drown Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 in a bricked hessian sack. Point is, the best franchise films stand alone, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be a great film even if Charlton Heston had never existed.
No one can quite believe that they’re saying it, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a damn good film. It’s a prequel that isn’t boxed in by continuity or knowing winks to the audience. It’s a character study, of a hyper-intelligent CGI primate, that isn’t overly goofy or dead serious. The film is so grounded by the performance of Andy Serkis, as the revolutionary chimp Caesar, that it’s sci-fi conceit and action sequences go from ‘potentially disastrous’ to ‘fucking astonishing’. It’s a film about evolution, revolution and the dawn of consciousness – how we, as human beings of hyper-intelligent apes, come to be who we are.
Will (James Franco) is developing a cure for Alzheimer’s, and testing his brain-regenerating drug on apes. After the tests go horribly wrong, he brings home one of the apes, Caesar, rather than put him down with the rest of the subjects. Caesar does not suffer from Alzheimer’s – in fact, he has absorbed the drug in utero, and his brain functions develop faster than a human child. The film charts Caesar’s development, from his idyllic childhood to his imprisonment by animal control, and develops an entire psychology around Serkis’ characterisation. He’s a tortured soul, driven to revolutionary action by circumstance, and his struggles are unexpectedly moving.
The apes in this film are ‘more human than human’ – this drives the science-fiction aspect of the film. Watching a young Caesar vault through crossbeams and dining-room tables, you don’t feel like you’re watching an animal run amok – it’s more like a super-agile child existing freely in his childhood home. When the assorted chimps out-manoeuvre local police, it’s not like a primal force overpowering a civilised society – it’s an out-thinking, an out-classing. Super-humans on the Golden Gate Bridge – it’s amazing to think how Rise of the Planet of the Apes treats similar themes so much better than something like X-Men 3.
Caesar’s arc – from wide-eyed child to struggling adolescent to calculating revolutionary – is made so much more identifiable because it’s supposed to be happening to something ‘non-human’. Emotions both subtle and intense, both animal and civilised, make us identify with something both ‘other than’ and ‘more than’ human. This is thanks to Serkis’ performance (for which no Oscar category currently exists), the folks at WETA and some very effective direction from Rupert Wyatt. Everything comes together, and we forget the silliness of super-smart apes taking over the world, because we’re too busy caring about what happens next.
Most of the human performances, of course, suffer by comparison. Franco is perfectly adequate in his role, and best when playing off of Caesar. There are some pretty cartoonish villains, from the a-little-too-capitalist Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) to a deliberately antagonistic caretaker (Tom Felton). There is a completely unnecessary love interest for Will (Freida Pinto), and otherwise zero performances by women to speak of. The strongest link is John Lithgow, playing Will’s Alzheimer’s-suffering father, Charles, in a sweet performance that in fact motivates the plot in the first place. Will is caring for, an attempting to cure, his own father whilst being one to Caesar. This kind of dynamic – father/son dynamics of aggression, identification and self-knowledge – really drive what happens throughout the film.
Outgrowing the father, upending society – Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a moving, well-crafted blockbuster, and earns its investment from the viewer. Highly recommended.