Reimagined apes rebooted.
The last time we saw the Planet of the Apes franchise on our screens, it was the best-forgotten Tim Burton “re-imagining” starring Mark Wahlberg. Not exactly a high benchmark to reach, then, but there’s a definite need to get it right this time.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is researching a cure for Alzheimer’s using apes as test subjects. When all the apes are put down, he finds an unnoticed newborn which he takes home. He and his father (John Lithgow) christen him Caesar, and discover he’s inherited the benefits of the serum. As he grows, it’s clear that Caesar (Andy Serkis) is incredibly intelligent, and may represent the permanent cure for the disease. But Caesar quickly becomes aware of his place in the world.
It’s a good idea to move the action back to the not-too-distant future, on a recognisable planet earth. Rise is certainly sci-fi, but it’s grounded in a realistic setting that allows the audience, and the filmmakers, to focus on the characters and the relationship between Will and Caesar. And even if Will’s moral dilemma is never quite satisfactorily explained, Caesar’s growing awareness of his difference to his surrogate family and his responsibilities to his kind are developed slowly and carefully.
Director Rupert Wyatt, who made the sadly under-seen Brit prison drama The Escapist, has a steady hand on the pace of the film, holding back on any big action set pieces until the finale. And while the story may not be especially complex, it’s told very competently. The screenplay (by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver) doesn’t exactly give us a lot of surprises but the relationships are well-constructed so we care about Caesar very quickly.
Franco is solid in a relatively colourless lead role, and quietly convinces in both his friendship with Caesar and his relationship with his father. Lithgow is typically excellent as Will’s Alzheimer’s suffering dad, and is given much more to work with than Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), who plays Will’s ape-expert girlfriend. Elsewhere, Brian Cox (Red), Tom Felton (Harry Potter), and David Oyelowo (Spooks) add varying shades of villainy. But it’s the man in the motion capture suit who really steals the show, as Serkis shows once again why he’s always the first actor on the list for the job. Caesar is a triumph of Weta technology and Serkis’ performance.
Some summer crowds may complain that the action is kept until too late in the film, while some audience members may feel the issues raised are treated a little too simplistically. But Wyatt knows what he’s doing, and the film is intelligent and heartfelt. For a summer blockbuster, that’s a rare combination indeed.
Verdict: Brains and heart make Rise a worthwhile reboot. Kudos to Wyatt and his team for reinvigorating a knackered franchise.