Take a young British Director, Rupert Wyatt, fresh from a great debut (The Escapist); add one ailing franchise in need of a reboot; sprinkle a cutting edge effects team and a specialist, expert actor; wait 2 years; and then… Bang! One of the best films of the summer is born, Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
But it hasn’t been a Bang really. This film has had something of the Bourne Effect. Word of mouth has spread, and fast. And while Fox surely hoped for good things at the box office, I’m sure they were pleasantly surprised that it made $20 million more than was expected, suggesting this sleeper hit is going to be one of the most profitable of the summer. (In the first six days it has already covered its production costs; have a look on Box Office Mojo for more details)
While comic books and superheroes have dominated multiplexes, what is clear from Rise’s growing box office is that it is an antidote to the Marvel/ DC saturation; to the ill conceived, bloated budgets that have led to so much disappointment this season. Because, while this film harks back to the original Planet of the Apes films in so many ways (some lines are used verbatim, albeit in different contexts) this is an original story, and one which is tense, action-packed and gripping from the opening scene.
One of the most memorable shots in Rise of the Planet of the Apes sees a massive troop of Chimpanzees swinging through trees, scattering leaves as they push forward towards their goal, the forest. Leaves fall, landing on the residents of San Francisco suburbia, who look up in awe at the huge line of apes swinging past them. The juxtaposition of the cosy, familiar human residents with these wild, animal interlopers allows the viewer to imagine, if just for a moment, how frightening and surreal it could be. It is this sensitivity that ensures the film’s success.
It begins in the jungle, with human hunters capturing a chimpanzee and shipping the ape back to America. There, a doctor, Will Rodman (James Franco), uses the ape to test a possible cure for Alzheimer’s, driven by his father’s affliction of the degenerative disease. The drug increases brain activity and is set for human trials, but, after an accident closes the research lab, Franco find himself looking after a baby monkey, the offspring of his genetically engineered experiment.
It is at this point we meet the real star of the film. Andy Serkis is probably going to be overlooked for an Oscar nomination, (he is not even mentioned in the main cast on IMDB!) but he has done an incredible job creating the character of Caesar- the ape Franco adopts and brings in to his family. It quickly becomes clear that Caesar is one clever primate, with his IQ increasing at a daily rate. But this intelligence also causes him to question his treatment and the treatment of his fellow apes, eventually leading to The Rise.
Caesar is treated like a pet by Franco, and though Franco is by no means a cruel or neglectful character, he is misguided, making it easy to sympathise with Caesar as he becomes more aware, more angry. Aware that he is the product of an experiment, that he is not human. Serkis communicates so much emotion through movements and gestures, and WETA have done what is quite possibly the best CGI I have ever seen, making Caesar and the rest of the apes, for the most part, totally convincing.
Caesar’s home life is edged with tension. It is inevitable that his intelligence and restlessness will lead to trouble, and when it does, he is sent to a secure pen, where he is locked away with other apes. It is here the film focuses on Caesar’s incredible journey from outsider to leader of his fellow apes, spurred on by the cruel handling from Tom Felton, and Brian Cox as the creepy pen owner.
There were moment when the CGI was a little flat, specifically when Caesar is a baby, but these are minor incidents. Overall it is breathtakingly good. The main issue is not the effects, but getting used to watching apes acting with such human behaviour. But as soon as you get used to it, you are completely immersed.
There were also some problems with characterisation. The relationship between Caesar and Franco’s Will Rodman is understandable- they are close, they have a quasi- father/son relationship- but this needed more attention. It wasn’t quite enough to see a montage of Caesar growing up. I wanted to see them interact, and not just when the plot hinged on it. Franco does surprisingly well. (I say surprisingly – I recently watched Your Highness) His natural charm gets you over a lot of the dubious things his character does, and he convinces as the doctor driven by love.
Freida Pinto is pretty much a pointless character- though incredibly pretty- and does little except tell Franco what he already knows, so the blatant signposting, such as: ‘it’s healthy to fear chimpanzees’ and he’s going to get bigger. What will you do then?’ are moot.
Tom Felton essentially recreates Draco Malfoy, but with a US twang. This pivotal role could have been far more sinister, and he does an okay job, but much of the fault for this can be laid at the feet of the screenwriters, who have not fleshed out the minor characters enough. Although Brian Cox manages to exude creepiness with every sly smile, he is under-used.
So yes, it has its faults. The storyline may be relatively simple and the script is not always as good as the film deserves, but these are minor issues when compared to the overall success of the film. The last 40 minutes is more exciting and full of more Blockbuster Bangs than any other film I have seen this summer, probably this year.
In a summer where mediocrity has been the trend, it is great to finally watch a film that takes some risks, and strikes out to be different. Bring on the sequel!