Sunday, 4 September 2011

Film Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Given the shitty reimagining of Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes back in 2001 there might understandably be some trepidation surrounding the latest attempt to reboot the classic ape franchise. Surprisingly however, Rupert Wyatt's latest rendition is actually quite good.

Scientist Will Rodman (Franco) works for a pharmaceutical company called Gen-Sys where he is on the verge of creating a brain-boosting drug he dubs "the cure for Alzheimer's". When an unexpected mishap involving one of the ape test subjects occurs the project is stopped and the remaining apes are ordered to be put down. Motivated by his own father's (Lithgow) struggle with the disease, Rodman smuggles one of the baby apes (Serkis) home and continues his experiments in secret.

Foremost this is an origins story. Out of the original five films in the franchise Rise of the Planet of the Apes most closely follows the fourth in the series, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Fans of the original will recognise the little nods given in the reboot, for example the rebellious chimp here is also named Caesar. Likewise, there is a rather nice touch where a news report in the film mentions man's first mission to Mars, later to present the audience with a newspaper headline of 'Lost In Space?'. If you know anything of the original, the premise is that astronauts get caught in a time warp and arrive in a post-apocalyptic future to find Earth inhabited by those damn dirty apes. Indeed, these very brief references can only be alluding to the probable future of the franchise. Other than that however, Rise remains very much its own film.

If you were to go back and watch the 60s/70s classics now you'll see a bunch of people running around in monkey costumes, but Rise has been updated for the twenty-first century audience. You won't see any real monkeys here as Andy Serkis (of Gollum fame) takes the lead in a new generation of CGI apes. The result achieved is actually something quite remarkable and an excellent example of how digital technology can be used for something other than alien spacecraft and explosive light shows. The nuanced dramatic effect of Caesar's increasing alienation and sullen brooding is magnificently captured through Serkis as we get a stark paradoxical portrait of the film's most complex character. While Caesar's aesthetic and movements are clearly that of an ape, an 'animal', Serkis poignantly brings mannerisms and emotions which are very much human. His development is really brought to life in an excellent portion of the film where he is locked away in a Primate Sanctuary for a public order offence. Separated from Rodman, we see Caesar's preternatural intelligence come into its own as he plots how to outsmart his nemesis guard (Felton - or Draco Malfoy) and forge a prison break. For a good period of Rise it becomes an efficacious jailhouse drama showing Caesar's transition into the leader of his species. It's somewhat spellbinding watching Serkis' Caesar evolve and transform a chaotic group of monkeys into an ordered and effective unit of apes. And what's even more compelling is that this is achieved in almost complete silence.

Indeed, this film is all about Caesar. The perfunctory human tales take a backseat where their function is merely to serve as plot devices. Franco and Pinto's love story for example is lacklustre, as is the corporate politics surrounding Gen-Sys. In fact, Pinto's role is just kinda pointless altogether, except for one scene where Caesar looks longingly at the couple sleeping in bed together as if to highlight that he yearns for the same human emotional intimacy but cannot, because he is an ape. Lithgow's Alzheimer's afflicted father is touching, but again is only there as a tool to justify his son's relentless drive in perfecting the film's Chekhov Gun, a wonder drug which accelerates the evolution of the ape's cognitive abilities. Again, Felton's sadistic prison guard serves his purpose of shaking Caesar's faith in human kindness thus motivating him to stage his rebellion. Even though the inevitable ape insurrection has yet to take place, the humans are already subservient to Caesar. As such, the human component to this film is somewhat disappointing, however Caesar's own humanity ironically injects more into proceedings than any person.

Another problem with Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that is suffers from the same affliction as most origins stories. Because it is required to introduce us to the characters it never really gets out of second gear and thus stays reasonably grounded. You'll have to wait right until the end for anything to really happen. Apes take on armed cops in a spectacular set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge where humans forget they are facing an enemy unrestricted by two dimensions and gorilla takes on his old nemesis, the helicopter. However, if you're expecting humanity's total overthrow in one film you'll be disappointed as Caesar seems willing to settle for some sort of autonomous ape zone on the edge of San Francisco. Indeed, it is not apes which will eventually conquer and enslave us, but rather man's own ingenuity as alluded to during the end credits. Where the sixties and seventies saw the spectre of nuclear war lie heavy on the cultural zeitgeist and was reflected in the original Planet of the Ape's explanation for man's demise, the post-cold war society clearly feels more threatened by viruses and asteroids. As such, this version has been spruced up for modern day societal concerns.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a reasonably evocative film which tries to make the point that perhaps it's time the Earth had a new dominant species. After all, we haven't been doing the best job, have we? While it suffers in places to the origins concept and is a little bit silly at times, Serkis' performance is a joy to behold. It is a promising start for the rebooted franchise and as the title suggests, expect a sequel. I for one welcome our new Simian overlords!