Fox were asking a lot of Rupert Wyatt, the British director who found himself in charge of one of the most well known, if not now well regarded, franchises in cinema. After two films, the last being the 2008 crime thriller The Escapist, Wyatt showcased his take on the origin story for the Apes series with riot footage, prison drama and wildlife and science documentaries spliced together, and all of these elements make it in to the final film but with one crucial addition – an emotional heartbeat that engages completely.
The set up is simple. It revolves around two beings: James Franco’s scientist who is working to cure the disease killing his father and in doing so causes the apes he is testing to experience increased intelligence and Caesar, one of these apes, cut off from his own kind and emotionally isolated, feeling the burn of not being one thing or another. There are not too many leaps to make to see how this premise goes horribly wrong.
Franco and John Lithgow make a decent father and son pair, and their scenes with the infant Caesar are crucially engaging. Andy Serkis doing some of his best work here. Sadly the same cannot be said for the rest of the cast. The human characters are where the film lets itself down with David Oyelowo’s Greedy Corporate Bloke simply being greedy and corporate.
The script gives the actors nothing more to work with; Arsehole Neighbour being just that. Tom Felton’s Angry Ape Handler is incredibly one note, given nothing more to do than sneer and snarl – he’s an actor surely capable of more. Frieda Pinto’s vet (Ape Doctor? We’re never too sure) adds little to the film. But at its heart this is a story about a family in trouble which rebuilds itself only to see everything torn apart. Without this the film would have been a visual effect showcase riding on the dead horse of a franchise which used to be interesting.
There are some clear nods to the 1968 film, some playful and other obvious, others embedded into the sort providing a clear line to the events of the first film; there is one moment that was in danger of pushing the film into parody but a crucial story point met it just before we were carried over and the film never looked back.
The film shifts tone and we enter the riot of apes and this is where all the emotion we have invested pays off, but as the pace picks up a few glaring plot holes are apparent, the effect is not disastrous but it does harm the flow as it seems the careful planning of the early part of the film is now lost in the mad crazy ape rampage.
The battle on the Golden Gate bridge is great fun, and any questions about exactly how the human race, who surely should be able to wipe out the Aperising in a drop of a bomb or two, disappear as the sheer force and speed of the attack is startling to see. At the film’s end we are left with a brief hint of what happens next during the credits, in a moment stolen appropriately from Twelve Monkeys.
Not since E.T. has a non human character been so convincing and so capable of wringing emotion from even the stoniest of heart. Caesar has ensured that Jar Jar Binks is dead in the water, this really is leaps and bounds over Jackson’s Gollum and even Avatar. Many times I forgot the creatures were not real – another testament to Weta’s work and Wyatt’s handling of the material. Only towards the end, when the apes are rising up over the bridge do the seams show but the work with Serkis’s Caesar is utterly convincing and that is crucial to us buying this story.
Rupert Wyatt and Weta have come together to produce a film that is far better than it had any right to be. I knew that the intention was always to grip at the heart before ripping it out, but I had no idea how successful they would be at doing just that. The visual effects are the best I’ve seen in a long time, and while the script lets the film down overall Rise of the Planet of the Apes may just be the surprise hit of the Summer.