Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a better film than it has any right to be, especially given its convoluted title. It seems to me the apes ought to do the rising, not the planet. Planets tend to just spin on their respective axes and circle larger celestial bodies. Then again, apes tend to throw faeces at each other, but I digress. The title was changed from the more fitting “Caesar” for commercial concerns, of course. Only now I wish the marketers had also let on whether the movie is a prequel, reboot, or remake.
Part of me wants to call it a prequel because of the detailed way its plot ties into the original Planet of the Apes, by which I mean the 1968 Charlton Heston vehicle, not the French novel by Pierre Boulle. I dig how news reports and headlines in the background set up Heston’s character and his fateful return to damn-dirty-ape-infested Earth. The film also makes references to the five sequels from the seventies and largely improves on their mythology.
For example, Rise of the Planet of the Apes provides a more elegant explanation for how naked zoo animals might overtake human civilisation. The subplot, which doesn’t involve a pet-killing space disease, pays off during the end credits. Also, the origin of Caesar (Andy Serkis), the chimpanzee destined to lead the primate revolution, is linked to pharmaceutical science instead of time travel. This openly contradicts events in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971) and its follow-ups, but you’ll hear no complaints from me.
Mind you, some story elements stretch suspension of disbelief to its breaking point. Early on, we’re expected to believe expert geneticists and veterinarians can spend months experimenting on an animal without noticing she’s pregnant. Later, a designer virus is tested with the loosest safety protocols, and a contaminated scientist decides he’d rather spend days coughing blood on everyone nearby than contact the authorities and put himself under quarantine. Worst medical research staff ever.
Anyway, the main plot focuses on Caesar’s tumultuous youth, which is split into three acts, each with its own sleazy villain, be it an entitled neighbour (David Hewlett), a frustrated animal caretaker (Tom Felton), or a greedy industrialist (David Oyelowo). Yes, the humans are the baddies in this yarn, and their cruelty proves disturbingly casual. The idea is to expose man’s corruption, demonstrating how, as Colonel Taylor would put it, we maniacs blew it all to hell.
We’re not all bad, mind you. The first act establishes Caesar’s loving relationship with his human family. James Franco portrays Dr Will Rodman with deceptive ease, evoking both a father figure and lifelong friend, and his love interest, Freida Pinto, is so pretty I barely noticed her character serves no purpose. However, John Lithgow steals the show as Will’s father, whose mind begins to slip away just as Caesar’s continues to develop. I love the tenderness in their shifting rapport.
The second act, my favourite, switches the point of view from Will to Caesar, placing our furry hero in the care of a sadistic teenager at a primate sanctuary. Because apes don’t talk (not yet anyway), Caesar’s character arc is developed entirely through his body language and facial expressions. The range of emotions his eyes can communicate astounds me. I dare say the animators have put Avatar (2009) to shame, refusing to limit themselves to broad feelings like anger and sadness when they can instead convey resentment, gratitude, and that sinking feeling you get in the pit of your stomach when you have to hurt someone you love to do the right thing.
Things go ape-poop in the third act as Caesar liberates his kin, culminating in an epic showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge. Once again, the movie puts character development front and center, showcasing the chimpanzee’s burgeoning leadership and his compassion for all primates, including man. His captains also get a chance to shine, most notably Buck the loyal gorilla (Richard Ridings), the disfigured Koba (Chris Gordon), and Maurice (Karin Konoval), a wise old circus orang-utan. Not every ape makes it to the end, and one death in particular broke my heart just a bit.
This, I think, is the film’s greatest achievement. The motion-captured primates may not quite look like real jungle animals, but they feel like genuine characters. In fact, part of me wants to call Rise of the Planet of the Apes a reboot because I’m eager to see further instalments with Caesar and his supporting cast. Of course, another part of me wants to call it a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972) to flaunt my knowledge of a forty-year-old franchise with talking monkeys. Yes, I know they’re apes. My point is they’re still swinging today.