Taking the old franchise back to its origins, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tells the story of how a potential miracle cure for Alzheimers disease ends up giving the apes on whom it is tested, human-levels of intelligence - setting up a chain of events that would forever alter mankind's supremacy as earth's dominant species.
What we thought:
It was hard not to walk into Rise of the Planet of the Apes without at least some trepidation. The previous attempt to revive the franchise was 2001's dire Tim Burton "re-imagining", which still rates as the worst thing he has ever done and ensured that no further attempts would be made throughout the rest of the decade. Here we are, though, ten years later and rather than remaking the series, they're doing something even more dubious: they're giving us the backstory that led to the now-iconic final moments of the original film.
I will refrain from giving away the original Planet of the Ape's incredible final twist for the three of you who have somehow avoided it but it is the sort of storytelling master-stroke that not only casts a new light on the rest of the film but opens the viewer's imagination to stringing together their own interpretations of events. It was, quite simply, brilliant. Rise of the Planet of the Apes' intent to map out those events didn't simply promise to be thoroughly unnecessary but, worse, a horribly misguided attempt to make explicit what was once so exquisitely implicit.
I wish I could say that the film dispelled those problems entirely but, alas no, they are still very much present. The film seems like it's trying just a bit too hard to connect the dots laid out by a previous film with story beats that sometimes fail to logically connect. What I can say is this: rather than outright sinking the film, these flaws have become mere niggles that do little more than stop a very, very good science fiction blockbuster from being a stone-cold masterpiece.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds on three all important levels. It has plenty of heart, it's genuinely intelligent and it brings all the spectacle you could want out of a big summer blockbuster and it combines all three aspects into a thoroughly satisfying whole.
Some of the characters are somewhat sketchily drawn but director Robert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver spend plenty of time fleshing out the film's main characters. The young geneticist responsible for the serum that gives the apes their intelligence, Will Rodman (played with unassuming confidence by James Franco) is presented as an overly ambitious, even arrogant scientist but whose compassion and obvious likeability makes him a protagonist we can root for. John Lithgow, as Will's Alzheimers-ridden father, is equally excellent as he brings his strangely compelling mix of warm humanity and prickly quirkiness to a character that is in many ways the conduit for all the events that unfold.
The true star of the film, though, is Andy Serkis whose mesmerising motion-capture performance as Caesar, effectively an Adam/Moses hybrid to this new intelligent breed of apes, is nothing short of extraordinary. The motion-capture CGI that effects-wizards Weta Digital use to bring the apes to life are seamless in their believability and physicality but it is Serkis' emotionally charged performance (so clearly informed by his work in Peter Jackson's King Kong) that makes Caesar so real a personality and so sympathetic a protagonist.
With the emotional core in place, the film can then get on to creating both an intelligent exploration of mankind's relationship with the animals that are our nearest genetic cousin, as well as humanity's arrogance at messing around forces that are perhaps beyond us or, at the very least, for which we are not yet ready. It's an old fashioned science fiction film that, for a large part of its running time, is more about ideas than massive CGI-driven action scene. But when it does finally bring on the spectacle for its final act, it really brings it. The conflict between ape and man is brought to a visceral, thrilling head as the Golden Gate Bridge plays host to the film's climactic final battle between primates. And it is a climax – unlike the meaningless destruction and CGI-saturated mayhem of certain other big, sci fi-blockbusters, this is a film that through its plotting, its themes and its characters has fully earned its right to "blow shit up".
It's hard to believe that this is Brit-TV veteran Robert Wyatt's first time helming a major Hollywood blockbuster but, after turning Rise of the Planet of the Apes into what is basically THE pleasant surprise of this year's blockbuster season, I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.