The original Planet of the Apes films are not hard sci-fi by any means, but fantasies with rich allegorical value. From the very first reports on Rise of the Apes, (originally Caesar, and now Rise of the Planet of the Apes to hammer the connection home, though, honestly, the chance of anybody missing the links, ahem, are pretty slim indeed) I was writing about how this film seemed set to reinvent the series’ mythology within a context of more relatable, real world science. The needle appeared to have swung over to point “20 Minutes Into The Future”, way out of the Chuck Heston red zone of intergalactic space missions and time holes.
The effect of this reconfiguration would be to make the film into a This Could Happen Story, or at least exaggerate the talking point components that relate to real world ideas. Rise would find it easier to talk about animal rights, not human rights. This new Apes was going to be an entirely different animal.
So I knew where the tone and style were going to be set when I went into the cinema and sat down. What I wasn’t so prepared for was where they were going to be set when I stood up to leave at the end.
The lead character of Rise is Caesar the chimpanzee, and it’s his evolution that drives the narrative changes, the action stepping up as he does. Though he’s not the same as “real world” apes right from the beginning – and the reason why is a simple, but essential bit of manoeuvring that serves the bigger picture well – it’s only later that he really stands apart, with some emphasis on stands. Andy Serkis plays Caesar through motion capture and while the CG, particularly of this lead character, is sometimes surprisingly unconvincing, the acting always shines through. Serkis draws us in close to Caesar and can convince, even when the character, in the last act, starts performing acts that aren’t as credible as the film’s generally grounded circumstances would suggest. Indeed, the needle dips into the red zone a couple of times. If we’re being charitable we could say that these little excesses only secure the film as being in a set, of sorts, with its 60s and 70s predecessors.
David Oyelowo and Tom Felton get short shrift as a pair of villains with some very flat and openly functional dialogue and, at most, two dimensions of motivation between them. They take part in some memorable scenes, but are definitely the least interesting things in them and, had these characters been better drafted, the film would have been saved from its lowest dips. James Franco plays Caesar’s surrogate father and his delivery is recognisably Franco. This year in particular, that might stick in the craw, though I think his performance will age just fine. John Lithgow, as Franco’s father, gets the better scenes with Caesar, but fewer of them, though, as a fan, I can tell you that I was just happy to see him. Freida Pinto lands squarely in the ditch by both having an underwritten role and no wit to scrape anything out of it.
But those humans don’t matter one half as much as the apes, and it is – and rightly so – the Caesar show.
Director Rupert Wyatt does pull out a few bits of business that have no real use in telling the story, including a few goofy, pointless matches in his transitions. Thankfully, he’s mostly disciplined, and stages a number of scenes very well.
The film is cleverly plotted, for the most part, and the weave of old-Apes lore and new ideas is tight. Particularly satisfying is the very final scene of the film which provides a nice little character pay-off specific to this narrative and casts some big ripples in the bigger backstory and series context . Sweetly, this even continues into the end credits themselves, which are set against an animation that… I won’t spoil here. An amusing irony to go out on, however (and there’s a pun in this sentence somewhere).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is in US cinemas from August 5th, and UK cinemas from Thursday August 11th. Certainly recommended.