Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a reboot, or reimagining or whatever you want to call it of the 1960s Charlton Heston franchise. One thing’s immediately clear, this is an assured retooling of the original idea which not only earns its place in the Apes canon but also ranks as one of the best blockbusters of the summer.
Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is hired by large corporation GenSys to test a range of performance boosting drugs on chimpanzees with the goal of finding a possible cure for Alzheimer’s. It’s something of a personal mission for him as his father (John Lithgow) is in the advanced stages of the disease. When the drug is proved a success, a lab disaster leaves the son of the lead chimp without a mother and so Rodman decides to take him home. The newly named Caesar quickly becomes part of the family and exhibits much great intelligence than any other primate.
As Caesar grows in size and strength, an unfortunate incident leads him to remanded by the state authority in a secure facility where he’s abused by the sadistic keeper Dodge (Tom Felton aka Draco Malfoy) and his father (Brian Cox).
Caesar also finds himself under attack by the centre’s own colony of primates but his intelligence quickly overcomes his initial disadvantage and he manages to organise a revolt and escape aided by an orang-utan that knows sign language.
Andy Serkis does a wonderful job as Caesar proving that he is the undisputed master of motion capture. There are many scenes where no words are spoken but much is said, Serkis managing to convey sadness, wistfulness, anger and betrayal with just a glance. It’s the perfect blend of technology and acting talent.
With Caesar as the clear star of the show, James Franco has less to do as the earnest scientist Will Rodman but his relationship with his father provides a clear motivation for his desperate dedication to his work. Lithgow’s performance is both heartbreaking and moving and he has some emotionally wrenching scenes with Caesar. As Caesar starts to grow, Lithgow degenerates but both have trouble understanding the world around them.
The rest of the supporting cast have little to do. Freida Pinto is relegated to eye-candy but judging by her wooden past performances that may not be a bad thing. Tom Felton tries gamely as the sadistic keeper Dodge Landon (a nice name check to fans of the original which featured two astronauts called Dodge and Landon) but he’s a stock bad guy, destined to be easily pasted by marauding apes – Malfoy without he magic in other words.
The pace is kept high throughout and it all builds to a fantastic confrontation on the Golden Gate bridge –a well-orchestrated l apes vs. humans battle as they make a bid for freedom. Impressive though the special effects are, they’re brilliantly used to enhance a solid story, not to replace it.
I’ve frequently said that I’m not usually in favour of remakes. After all, why remake a good film? But Rise Of Planet Of The Apes, despite is terrible wordy title, is a complete success, largely because it has the guts to stand on its own feet without feebly imitating its predecessors. It’s an intelligent and thought-provoking film, one which raises some interesting questions about philosophy of mind and animal experimentation but is also an entertaining, exciting and thoroughly engaging sci-fi thriller.
Note: If you can, see it with real-life chimp behavioural documentary Project Nim, also out this week.