On paper, this one looked a tad iffy. After all, who needs another Planet of the Apes movie when the first one (1968) is so terrific; the four (count ‘em) sequels so iffy, and Tim Burton’s 2001 reboot so dull? As it turns out, Rupert Wyatt’s movie is one of the more entertaining and thought-provoking cinematic offerings to come our way this summer.
Many origins movies (or prequels) are merely excuses to milk one last drop of success from a popular franchise. Happily this is not an accusation that can be levelled at Rise of Planet of the Apes.
The movie opens with research scientist James Franco busily testing a new gene repair wonder drug on a variety of chimpanzees. While his pharmaceutical company hopes any breakthrough will make them billions of dollars; Franco is only concerned that the research might provide a cure for his father (John Lithgow), a man sliding further and further into the fog of dementia. An early setback forces Franco to pull the plug on his programme but he heads home with a baby chimp and a few stolen vials of the drug in tow, the better to continue his work. Meanwhile, baby chimp Caesar grows bigger and brighter...
Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds on many levels. First it’s an excellent origins story, neatly explaining how Charlton Heston and the boys could have crash-landed on a future Earth where Simians rule the roost. It also works terrifically well on the special effects front, blending live action and CGI work in a seamless weave. The original Apes movies boasted some of the finest make-up work ever seen (and deservedly scooped a special Oscar), but this movie wouldn’t have succeeded using guys running around in ape suits, even if those guys are as talented as Andy Serkis. Serkis and the Lord of the Rings techies have combined their talents to produce the most striking performance capture effects seen to date (at least until Tintin arrives in cinemas). Each of the main apes, notably Caesar, has such a distinctive personality that you find yourself rooting for the monkeys rather than the humans as the movie’s big climax hoves into view.
Speaking of humans, James Franco delivers a solid performance as the scientist at the centre of it all, while Slumdog beauty Freida Pinto lights up the screen as his gal pal. Brian Cox and Tom Felton hit their marks as the animal shelter baddies, and John Lithgow brings depth to his role as an Alzheimer's sufferer.
Those who have never seen Chuck Heston and those damned, dirty apes will still find plenty to savour in Rupert Wyatt’s film. Meanwhile, fans of the 1968 sci-fi classic will lap up the subtle (the chimp is called Bright Eyes; at one point he is playing with a toy Statue of Liberty, etc) and not so subtle (the opening chase through the forest; the water-hose scenes, Felton’s "stinking paws" outburst, etc) references that are sprinkled throughout the movie.
Now where did I put that banana?