One ape: good. Many apes…?
Whether Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a re-boot or a one-off experiment remains to be seen. UK director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) has said further films depend on Rise’s box office performance. As it stands Rise is #1 in the US and has taken almost $200 million worldwide.
So sequel talk is already spreading.
Either way, any “Apes” story has a lot of heritage to overcome, and Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes, while commercially successful, failed to spark a franchise in 2001. The heritage? Well between 1968 and 1975 there were 5 “Apes” movies, starting with Charlton Heston, and two TV series syndicated worldwide - success not just based on cool make-up and big endings (hello Statue of Liberty or planet ending kaboom) but, as apes are natural human mirrors, the concepts were riddled with social parallels.
Humanity and slavery. Humanity and nuclear destruction. Humanity and a desire for power. And all this in a changing time of Cold War, Vietnam and social revolution.
People watched in droves, and they became water-cooler, then iconic stories.
A tall (and hairy, poo-flinging) burden for Rise, indeed. So how does this latest 2011 “origins story” fare?
Surprisingly well. In fact, very well indeed.
In Rise James Franco (Spiderman, 127 Hours) plays a BigCo bio-scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s by testing brain regeneration drugs on chimpanzees (notes of otherwise unrelated shark-horror Deep Blue Sea). When his test-chimp is gunned down in an ape-crazy rampage, he secretly looks after her orphaned chimp-son and continues researching to help his Alzheimer’s suffering father (John Lithgow). The orphan Caesar (motion-captured creature-guru Andy Serkis) then grows up to be a fond member of the family, joined by veterinarian Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire). The kicker: as son of the test-chimp, Caesar displays astonishing intelligence (proving it can be passed down genetically), and the line between child, test subject and family pet is blurred.
The first hour is spent following Caesar’s maturity from orphan child to young chimp-adult, his corresponding growing intelligence, and Will’s battle to cure his father. The little details here are given great attention. Caesar’s curiosity for freedom and yet emotional turmoil of not belonging is punctuated by scenes of abandon as he swings around the house and then forest, and scenes of confusion with the scared and unfriendly neighbours. It is joyful, and then disconcerting.
I found Caesar’s coming of age so intricate that the moment he is separated from James Franco and Freida Pinto and impounded with other apes was deeply moving.
It’s after being locked up with his own (but normal) kind and not-so-nice handlers (Brian Cox and Draco Malfoy’s Tom Felton), that Caesar’s change to leader can then begin. And as Caesar neither belongs with humans nor apes, Rise does surprisingly well there on the motivational plausibility score.
However, perhaps aware of the 100 minute run-time, its here where the film speeds up. A lot. Caesar’s slow burn beginning and human/ape/loneliness torment quickly leads to a carefully executed plan to gain the respect of the other primates, and then when realising they’re too thick to really be organised, try and make them clever and all escape as one.
It’s clearly heading to the “BIG MONKEY SET PIECES” in the trailers (where the number of apes in San Francisco seems unlikely!). The action is handled well – with strong moments – but it isn’t at the same level as the first 2/3 of the story. Personally, I’d have liked to see Caesar struggle more with his decision to reject humanity in the impound before being given a final kick over the edge (a romantic connection with another impounded chimp is hinted at, but never revealed) as his transition to General felt too quick for me. Understandable, but it felt like it missed a beat.
This may perhaps explain why certain big points (e.g. Caesar’s reaction to accusation of being a “damned dirty ape”) got big awkward laughs in my cinema, rather than the big tingling gasps they seemed to be aiming for.
It’s like Wyatt and team started making a small moving story then realised they needed a large ape uprising to be an Apes movie and get bums on seats. And they were probably right, but it gets caught between re-boot and one-off, and if they had known in advance that a sequel was likely, they may have kept closer focus on the Caesar-Franco relationship, left the ending looking forward, and saved the morsel-y many-aped uprising for a later sitting.
That or extended the run time. For the first time in a while, I’d say a summer blockbuster was too short at just over 100 minutes.
However that is all nit-picking in a very enjoyable, value for money film. Wyatt handles both the emotion and the action subtly (at one point leaves fall down from a covering of suburban trees like an upside down Raptors-in-long-grass-scene) and Caesar is a pleasure to watch. Serkis will no doubt again get praise, and Lithgow is strong, if not quite up there with Jim Broadbent’s Alzheimer’s portrayal in BBC’s Exile. Furthermore the effects are so natural I can pay them the highest compliment – I didn’t notice them at all.
In a year of origins stories (Green Hornet, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Captain America) it’s the one that probably had the hardest job that will likely come out on top – and most likely sprout a difficult sequel.
Overall: Rise hedges its bets well, but perhaps at the sacrifice of hitting its best.
Reviewer: Jonathan Guyett