Thursday, 11 August 2011

'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' review:

Coming as something of a big, pleasant surprise from left-field, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is one of the stand-out films of the year so far and looks set to become a sizable box office hit. In fact, if Fox run a smart enough campaign, it could even stand a chance at winning some Oscars next year - perhaps even managing that acting nomination for a motion captured performance that Andy Serkis (the film's real star) so craves. But what knocked me for six wasn't the phenomenal quality of the CGI apes rendered by WETA Digital, the ingenious use of San Francisco locations, or the emotional journey told almost entirely from the point of view of an animal (Serkis as chimp Caesar). It was rather the fact that the whole ridiculous "monkeys take over the world" concept had been handled in such a plausible, intelligent and entertaining way.

The original Charlton Heston 'Planet of the Apes' of 1968 saves the reveal - that the planet ruled by the chimps is our own futuristic Earth - until just before the end credits. It doesn't have to trouble itself with the irksome minutiae of how this simian revolution was possible. The implied cause was nuclear war, which killed off human civilization and gave birth to an ape-led society, but how this actually transpired is left up to individuals in the audience to imagine. The problem inherent in a "here's how it happened" prequel is that you have to make this event believable. You have to show it. This is an even bigger problem when the old "threat of nuclear war" angle is no longer considered relevant and the idea of "atomic mutation" as a cause for anything other than cancer is simply laughable. The solution for the 21st century? Animal experimentation accidentally gives apes increased intelligence and these smart animals wage revolution. But how can you pull that off on camera?

After seeing the trailer I had a basic cynical problem with the premise of 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'. I don't care how smart apes get - as long as we've got the guns and tanks they aren't going to take over the world. Yet British director Rupert Wyatt has made this idea work. Before the film is done we are invited to see a pitched battle between the San Francisco Police Department and a gang of organised chimps, gorillas and orangutans, and by the end you'll believe these animals could take the city apart brick by brick if they wanted to. The animals seem powerful, fast and agile - capable of feats usually saved for superhero characters - but none of it feels impossible so long as you accept the idea that the apes are now capable of reason and able to work together as a group.

It also helps that we aren't being sold 'Rise' as the big moment where apes take over the world, but as just the first big step on that journey, which means Wyatt doesn't yet have to show them besting the US Army or firing guns. This is basically a prison break out movie: escaped convicts versus the law. It isn't an epic tale of global conflict just yet (though the introduction of an airborne virus fills in the gaps about what happens next to some extent). An even bigger factor in why all this madness seems to make sense is that the first two thirds of the film are all about building up the character of Caesar and showing us his troubled relationship with humanity and his own crisis of identity. By the time the action really starts, we are already invested in the chimpanzee as a fully-formed character and no longer even see his actions as those of an animal.

More so than any other blockbuster of the year, 'Rise' is a dramatic story first and an action film second and this all comes courtesy of Serkis and WETA. It is a combination of a skilled character actor and tremendous animators that creates such a compelling and credible character in Caesar. A chimp adopted by James Franco's scientist after his mother is killed in the lab, he is the focus of the entire film and we follow him from newborn to energetic teenager, before he is brutalised and locked away. Caesar then (perhaps reluctantly) takes up the mantle of revolutionary leader to free apes from their human oppressors, grappling with moral and existential concerns along the way. What nuance the film has is in this journey, as key moments include subtle looks in the ape's eyes as we see his worldview change wordlessly.

By contrast the human characters could certainly be dismissed as shallow ciphers, with Tom Felton and Brian Cox playing snarling animal handlers, John Lithgow hamming it up as a confused, yet kindly, old man with Alzheimer's, and the ever-wooden Freida Pinto appearing as a smiling vet with few lines of dialogue and almost no narrative purpose beyond that of perfunctory love interest. As the live action star, James Franco is watchable but also lacking in depth, playing the committed scientist who goes to far trying to cure his father's brain illness before ultimately and inadvertently unleashing chimpgeddon on humanity. He is possibly supposed to be a conflicted, morally dubious genius in the mould of Jeff Goldblum's character in 'The Fly' or the original Dr. Frankenstein, but Franco always comes across as basically quite nice, the upshot being you never really question his motives or methods.

It's also true that compared to the theme rich original (which used its science fiction setting to explore then taboo subjects such as racism, the Vietnam War, potential nuclear holocaust and religious dogma) this prequel is pretty simple, with the basic moral being that we should treat animals better. Which is fair enough, but also not an idea that really challenges the audience (it'd be an odd person that objects to a "don't electrocute monkeys for fun" message). I suppose the revolutionary theme could be read more broadly as something about how an underclass will rise against an oppressive state, but oddly - for a film selling itself on the iconography of revolution - there is nothing revolutionary about its vaguely anti-science social agenda.

That said, 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is as good a time as it's possible to have at the movies this time of year and (my great enjoyment of 'Captain America' and the final 'Harry Potter' notwithstanding) has to be viewed as the pick of the multiplex for summer 2011. From its emotional opening moments to the mesmeric doomsday scenario offered over the closing credits, Wyatt's prequel/remake is far better than it has any right to be.

'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' is out in the UK today and is rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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