At the cinema a few weeks ago to see ‘Captain America’, I noticed a big freestanding foyer display for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’. Memories of Tim Burton’s aesthetically confused ‘Planet of the Apes’ remake came flooding back to me and I groaned aloud. I jerked a thumb at the display and asked of anyone within earshot, “Isn’t that the most redundant concept for a movie?”
Fast forward a couple of weeks and a colleague with established good taste in movies went to see it and raved wholeheartedly. Then Tim at Antagony & Ecstasy gave it a solid 7/10 and deemed it second only to ‘Captain America’ in terms of wholly entertaining 2011 tentpole movies. My sister-in-law almost demanded that we go and see it.
And even with this triumvirate of recommendations, I was sceptical.
Sometimes I need to quit listening to myself and listen to other people. ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is a brisk, engaging and often kinetically exciting piece of mainstream entertainment. It’s attentive to pacing, it gives a damn about empathy and characterization, and it delivers the goods and then some when it comes to the big action set-pieces.
Although the narrative is pretty much a fait accompli – everything moves towards a final act which sees mankind on the verge of destruction and simiankind ready to inherit the earth – writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver find a structure that explicates the development of the apes’ intelligence, sets the scene for global viral disaster, seeds the returning astronaut scenario of the original film and delivers the best salvo against animal testing this side of a PETA campaign.
It also gives us ape-like apes instead of people in ape masks. This makes ‘RotPotA’ worth the price of admission alone. The apes are CGI, natch, but they look the part and the filmmakers wisely anthropomorphize them through characterization rather than character design. Our hero is Caesar (a splendid piece of motion capture work by Andy Serkis), the only survivor of a lab-full of simians who are put down on the orders of corporate money-man Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) after a frightened test subject goes beserk and effectively fucks up a pitch to the board for permission to move researcher Will Rodman (James Franco)’s potential cure for Alzheimer’s to human testing stage. Rodman “adopts” Caesar, so named by his Shakespeare-quoting father (John Lithgow) – himself an Alzheimer’s sufferer. Lithgow’s turn is sensitively nuanced, the best work the actor has done in ages. Rodman observes Caesar’s cognitive development and is convinced his experimental drug will work. Unethically, he uses it on his father and results – initially at least – are superlative. Throw in a burgeoning romance with veterinarian Caroline (Frieda Pinto) and things are looking rosy for Rodman.
Then things go pear shaped. His father’s immune system develops antibodies resistant to the medication and he regresses severely. An incident where he’s bullied by the Rodmans’ bolshie neighbour is curtailed when the now fully-grown Caesar knocks seven shits of excrement out of the douchebag in question. This results in a court order to impound the ape at a so-called sanctuary run by the corner-cutting John Landon (Brian Cox), who leaves the inmates to the less-than-tender care of his snivelling asshole son Dodge (Tom Felton). I say “inmates” because ‘RotPotA’ abandons its sci-fi trappings for the middle third and embraces the iconography and anti-establishment aesthetic of the prison-break movie (apposite, given that director Rupert Wyatt’s previous outing was ‘The Escapist’).
In short order, Caesar meets ex-circus orang-utan Maurice (the Red to Caesar’s Andy Dufresne, as it were), antagonistic chimp Rocket, and a gorilla in the ape-house version of solitary called Buck (virtually all the character names, human and primate, reference the original franchise). The conditions are rudimentary, Dodge’s behaviour intolerable. Caesar starts plotting rebellion.
Jaffa and Silver’s script, shepherded by the unpretentious craftsmanship of Wyatt’s direction, strikes enough of a balance between sympathetic human characters (Rodman père et fils, Caroline, the ill-fated animal handler at the lab) and complete tossers (Dodge, Jacobs) that things never quite tip over into sympathy-for-the-apes propaganda, but the emphasis is definitely on how shitty the animal kingdom has it thanks to humankind’s jackpot of opposable thumbs in the whole random cosmic lottery deal.
It’s hard not to cheer when [a certain character] gets it in a beautiful exemplar of poetic justice, or when Jacobs strides self-importantly into the pharmaceutical company’s gleaming glass-fronted HQ and suddenly realizes that his test subjects aren’t so docile anymore. Likewise, a superbly orchestrated battle between humans and apes on the Golden Gate Bridge – spatially convincing and blissfully free of the shaky-cam/epileptic intercutting nonsense that Michael Bay and his ilk have clogged up mainstream cinema with – is one of the best set-pieces I’ve seen on the big screen in ages.
Quibbles? They’re so minor as to barely merit a mention. Vanilla performance from Franco, but so what – it’s Caesar who’s the main character and Serkis and the CGI team work wonders between them. The Rodman/Caroline romantic subplot is so inessential you almost feel sorry for Frieda Pinto – she’s worth more than the nothing role the film gives her. The inclusion of “take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape” is an in-joke too far, particularly when the panoply of other references are incorporate with a commendable subtlety.
Ultimately, though, ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ is far far better than it has any right to be, a film that bristles with obvious affection for its subject material, benefits from care and attention to detail, and regenerates a fondly-remembered franchise much more effectively than Tim Burton’s depressingly impersonal remake.