Tim Burton must be slapping his forehead right about now. A decade ago he brought us a remake of the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes and the result was pretty much universally panned. However, 10 years on director Rupert Wyatt (known for his interesting prison escape drama The Escapist) has taken the franchise and reinvigorated it for a 21st century audience (read: bigger and better action) but at the same time not losing an ounce of smarts. This is how you do it, Mr. Burton.
The film is an origin story of how the apes would eventually rise, specifically following scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) who develops a way to increase intelligence in apes in his attempt to cure Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders. You don’t really need to know more than that to know what you’re getting yourself in for. We all know basically the state things are going to end up in (the title alone gives that away) but it’s the “how” and “why” rather than the “what” which makes this fascinating viewing.
It’s quite a unique blockbuster in that it doesn’t throw sense and logic completely out of the window (although you of course have to suspend your disbelief somewhat). Arguably the very definition of a “fun summer blockbuster” these days is where you leave your brain at the door and just enjoy some mindless action for a couple of hours. Not the case with Rise of the Planet of the Apes (try saying that title 10 times fast). Similar to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, although nowhere near as complicated, this just as smart as it is action-packed, and most importantly it takes its time to establish and develop its characters before you get to the inevitable big action sequence.
Even though Franco receives top billing here as the lead, it is the performance of Andy Serkis as the main ape, Caesar, which truly makes the film. Motion-capture or not, this is flat-out brilliant performance, even improving on what he did with Peter Jackson’s King Kong. It’s not quite the human-like performance he gave as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy (simply because that character readily spoke) but he perfectly captures the movements of a real ape, so much so that you actually forget you’re watching a CGI representation. There’s already talk of Serkis being the first actor to get an Oscar nomination for a motion-capture performance come next year and I’m happy to say that sort of talk is completely justified.
Aside from Franco and Serkis, all the supporting performances are solid across the board. Highlights include John Lithgow as Franco’s afflicted father, Tom Felton as a nasty ape handler (it’s nice to see him get a role in a major film that isn’t Harry Potter) and Brian Cox (here re-teaming with Wyatt) as the owner of the facility which “looks after” Caesar. The only weak link in the cast is Freida Pinto (most known from Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire); it’s not that she gives a bad performance per se, it’s that her character isn’t really needed. You virtually could have plucked her from the story and it wouldn’t have made all that much difference.
There’s always going to be a debate over which is more effective: make-up or CGI. I think it’s fair to say that it depends on the film – sometimes practical make-up isn’t physically possible for what the director is aiming for. The decision to use CGI in this case was a wise one as with today’s spectacular motion-capture technology it allows for extremely lifelike characters as well as more elaborate action. We are getting the best of both worlds.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the film takes a long time to reach any sort of huge action sequence. Even with sporadic scenes of chases and ape attacks earlier on, it’s not really until the huge action-packed finale that things are turned up to 11 and everything we have invested in the film emotionally pays off brilliantly. But while the big action sequence is a fantastic and an often jaw-dropping sight to behold, it’s not even the best part of the film. How many summer blockbusters can you truly say that about?
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of those rare summer blockbusters which has just as much brain as it does brawn (if not more). Respecting the source material (keen-eyed fans will notice more than a few nods to the original) while still bringing something entirely fresh to the table, this is an action film which offers a lot of heart and emotion, it being simultaneously over-the-top and strangely grounded. Alongside Super 8 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part II, this is a strong contender for blockbuster of the summer.