Admit it. When YOU first heard that the Planet Of The Apes franchise was going to be yanked back into life (possibly while in a net while being dragged by a horse), you probably wasn’t entirely enthused much either. After all, since the original became a stone cold classic upon it’s release back in the 60’s (telepathic bomb worshiping mutants, apes travelling in time, 70’s fashions) the series, thanks to ever wilder plots and progressively shrinking budgets, the series seemed to be doing everything it could to screw itself as deep into the dirt as it could. Things got even worse in 2001, when Tim Burton’s handsome but shitty remake was received badly enough for studio 20th Century Fox to drag the shrieking franchise into a deserted alley an put a rifle shell into it’s brain while it shat itself and gibbered for it’s life like John Turturro in Miller’s Crossing. Spin the clock forward and when news started filtering out about this latest re-imagining our opinions were hardly reversed: James Franco? CGI apes? A present day setting? Surely the wrong kind of ape-pocalypce was on the cards, right?
Will Rodman is a scientist on a mission. Leading a programme that tests a compound that stimulates brain tissue on laboratory chimps in an attempt to eradicate alzheimers (I’m assuming a screening of Deep Blue Sea wasn’t part of his formal education) Will hopes to cure his addled father who’s memory dissipates more and more every day. When the most promising of his test subjects goes berserk in order to protect a suprise newborn, Will’s project is shut down and all the chimps are promptly destroyed; but in a random act of guilt Will takes home the baby ape and names him Caesar but is stunned when the little blighter starts showing high levels of intelligence as he matures. Years past and as Caesar gets older he starts to question his place in the world and how humans perceive him and in a flash of rage worthy of an acting out teenager, he gets locked away in a grotty ape sanctuary after attacking a neighbour thanks to a tragic misunderstanding. Locked up with a facility full of normal apes and cruel staff abusing him mentally and physically at every turn, Caesar plots an audacious plan to turn around the fortunes of not just himself, but virtually every imprisoned ape in San Francisco (go big or go home, right?) that eventually may have dire consequences for the very future of mankind.
Even though it’s not mentioned as much as it should be, this new Apes franchise essentially became the Dark Knight Trilogy of monkey movies with Rise’s launching point behaving much in the same way that Batman Begins did, sweeping away any and all doubts about a new reboot by simply pulling off the simple act of being really bloody entertaining.
Under the eye of director Rupert (The Escapist) Wyatt, the story chugs along nicely at first, focusing on Franco’s character raising a young Caesar who progressively becomes less wide-eyed the more he sees of the world, but after the above-average ape gets banged up, the film aggressively shifts gears and out of nowhere becomes one of the best prison break movies in recent memory. Literally ALL the tropes are here, but presented in a funky monkey new way – the wiley old inmate who schools the new fish is here presented as Maurice, an old orangutan who was once with the circus, a short tempered gorilla constantly in solitary is the temperamental muscle whom Caesar has to befriend to gain a foothold in the prison hierarchy, the callous staff are the abusive screws and every second spent watch the young simian work out the details of his intricate escape is pure gold.
In hindsight, Franco – technically the “star” of the movie – is only really there to keep the plot and science-y exposition moving until Caesar is of age to take the reigns of the story himself and as a result, becomes fairly throwaway during the second half with only occasionally kissing Freida Pinto and screaming “CAESAR” at various moments to keep him busy. Thankfully the immense mo-cap suit experience of Andy Serkis and the boffins at Weta digital mean that Ceasar is the REAL star of the movie and can hold the screen with photo-real CGI work that holds up just as well as it did in 2011. Serkis’ subtle eye gestures and body language make his chimpanzee freedom fighter a magnetic presence and the fact that the movie makes you root so hard for a character that is, in essence, nothing more than a pile of primate pixels is a glowing testament to the craft.
Finishing up a nearly perfect second half with the Apes rising all over San Fran and causing vast amounts of awesome property damage, the film is a delirious pleasure and watching Caesar’s inner circle use spears, parking meters and a manhole cover like Captain America to fend off police is fist-pumpingly satisfying but the final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge – where we watch open mouthed as a gorilla single handedly kills a fucking helicopter – is worth the price of admission alone.
Wyatt dots quite of a few homages around the place too as he visually references such filmmakers such as Spielberg and Hitchcock (the crowd of static apes glaring at their oppressors owes a huge, legitimately creepy, nod to The Birds).
The downsides are negligible. The film contains a hell of lot of dangling plot threads to service a sequel that it thankfully got; but at the time all the copious hints to a human killing virus and not to mention the introduction to Koba – the scarred and highly antagonistic villain chimp in waiting – were mouthwatering to the point of being frustrating. Also, some of the fan service is clumsy to the point of being distracting, with a grown up Draco Malfoy dropping unsubtle Chalton Heston lines at opportune moments simply for a cheap reaction. I get why they’re included, but would a thuggish, Californian twenty-something really use the term “damn, dirty ape” while being attacked by a wild animal?
Nevertheless, at the time, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was easily regarded as the best Apes movie since the original by far, but thanks to this bold and surprisingly breezy (considering we’re dealing with animal cruelty, scientific moral conundrums and the possible fall of the entire human race) pallet cleanser the franchise could move onto even bigger and loftier ideas.
As good a reboot as there’s ever been, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes may have too many “Of The’s” in it’s title but it’s also a prime example that maybe monkeying around with the DNA of an original isn’t always a bad thing…