Monday, 8 August 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rating: 12A
Runtime: 105 mins

In an era where reboots/sequels/prequels/remakes/reimaginings are released in abundance, it's hard to look beyond the copious amounts of unimaginative efforts that filter through Hollywood year in year out. More often than not, these franchise extensions are heavily promoted, marketed and packaged in a way that dupes an unsuspecting public into thinking that this instalment will improve on its predecessors. Sadly they don't. In fact, such cash-ins turn out to be the ugly duckling of the collective; something that fails to satisfy as a film, let alone meet any expectations. 

Thankfully, Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn't fall into either of these pitfalls, which is surprising considering the lack of marketing (and modest $90m budget) this 50 year franchise receives. Sure, audiences can, and will, enter with preconceived ideas, but Rise sticks two fingers up, opting instead for something that genuinely surprises and impresses on its own merits.

Director, Rupert Wyatt (the man behind brilliantly underrated, The Escapist) breaks the cycle of franchise fodder, as Rise does what most other reboots fail to do, which is to create something that supersedes, entertains and evolves. Even rarer is that Rise outdoes 2001's Planet of the Apes remake (in every department), and whilst that may not be a particularly difficult feat, this shows how careful planning and attention-to-detail can result in a movie where audiences and critics can speak so positively of.

For those who aren't familiar with the series, Rise is the chronological start of the Planet of the Apes timeline. Scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), heads a team that test the cognitive function of apes, all in the name of genetic engineering, with the hope of developing a cure for Alzheimer's. Will is desperate to develop a serum to aid his ill father, Charles (John Lithgow), whose health is rapidly deteriorating. After an incident at the research facility, the programme is subsequently shut down, but after he discovers an abandoned new born, Will takes it upon himself to raise the ape, he names Caesar ( played by Andy Serkis), who shows early signs of developing at an advanced rate. Any further synopsis detail would give away elements of the well thought out story, which is one of the most pleasing aspects of the film. Banished are nonsensical, ridiculous plot points, as Wyatt works from a solid and well written script that undoubtedly proves the quality over quantity theory. The plot moves at a well structured pace, as side characters, including love interest, Caroline (Frieda Pinto) and John Landon (Brian Cox), are integrated. They play small, non-vital roles that serve a purpose, but ultimately under-use their talents. Similarly Lithgow feels a little miscast as Franco's confused father; based on his career, the role would perhaps benefit from a lesser known actor, or one void of comedic association.

What quickly becomes clear is the focus on the plight of the apes and not the struggle of humanity. Wyatt conveys an impressively deep, meaningful and emotionally charged story from an ape perspective, which is a massive achievement in itself. What's more, this focal point never feels silly or clumsy; it's handled with care and constructed strongly, as the subtlety of their performances evoke feelings associated with human characters. This is all done by the power of CGI too (aside from some baby Caesar moments). No longer are we subject to actors running around in costume - all marsupial involvement is computer generated. At times it looks stunning, with the attention to detail so fine it often convinces as the genuine article. However, it does indulge a little during some extravagant climbing/swinging sequences, courtesy of Caesar. These over-the-top segments briefly remind audiences they are watching something designed on a computer, whereas the more subtle gestures, such as physical movement, inner emotion and stunning facial expressions, work far better if we are meant to believe what we are seeing is real. 

Fortunately, the positives outweigh the minor negatives, which include its thematic elements. Relationships form a basis of the story; whether the focus is father and son (Charles/Will and Will/Caesar), or Caesar's leadership over the apes, there is a suggestion of belonging. There is a touching "What is Caesar?" moment, which arguably provides a catalyst for an ape up-rise, and enters territory of science interfering with nature. As a result of this, it somehow feels right to be in support of the animals, over the ignorance of humanity. We witness the evolution of protagonist (Caesar) turn antagonist, as the story is told from the ape's perspective, their oppression is juxtaposed in stark contrast to previous Apes titles as we can, for once, sympathise with them rather than see them as the oppressors of subservient humans.

Rise is a film with enormous heart and is, for the most part, emotionally gripping. The human characters serve the progression of the story, but the true heart is Caesar, portrayed magnificently by Serkis. The exquisite CGI really makes the film more engaging and thus believable, whereas shoddy effects would have destroyed such an illusion (See I Am Legend).

It may prove useful to know some of the franchise back story (i.e. what the original premise is), but it isn't essential. It does, however, put Rise into context, making it easier to digest, but in no way any less enjoyable.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the biggest surprise of the year and, along with Super 8, asserts itself as a one-to-watch. Thoroughly entertaining, with a fantastic performance from Serkis as the ape that instigates the beginning-of-the-end for humanity; for once CGI manages to emotionally engage without feeling awkward or lacklustre. The well formed script strengthens no end, as Rise delivers on all levels; from summer blockbuster, to credible film, to franchise reboot; this is a powerful and essential film you must experience for yourself.