Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes


Reviewed by: Anton Bitel

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
"In short, this is a great summer movie, spectacular in its realisation, yet resonant in its themes."

As part of an experiment, a baby chimp is taken from the arms of its mother, and raised in an all-human environment, where it is house-trained and taught to use sign language. Then, as the chimp grows older and stronger, it has to be removed from its loving (human) family to an animal sanctuary where it is mistreated by humans and apes alike. But this chimp is special, and it will not forget those who have either helped or harmed it.

This is the plot of Project Nim, James Marsh's biopic of the ape Nim Chimpsky and the various linguists, animal handlers and lab technicians who came into contact with him throughout his eventful life. It is also essentially the plot of James Wyatt's Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes which, in one of the more adventurous distribution decisions in recent times, gets its theatrical release in the same week as Marsh's documentary. Indeed, the two films would make a compelling double feature, with the strange-but-true reality of the one perfectly complementing the SF of the other.

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Make no mistake, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is SF, unfolding in a near future where man is already on his way to Mars, and with a plot revolving around a new pharmaceutical being designed as a miracle cure for degenerative brain disorders (think Deep Blue Sea, but with apes rather than sharks as the drug's experimental vehicles). Yet if SF is inscribed even in the film's location, S(an) F(rancisco), there has been no attempt to dress the city up as some sort of futurist metropolis, or to equip its citizens with high-tech gadgetry or strange fashions.

On the contrary, this is a world entirely drawn from contemporary experience, and similarly the film's narrative, though certainly premised on a conceptual leap, is anchored in a drama that is all too recognisably human – not to mention simian. The main character here may be the rapidly evolving chimp Caesar, but skilful storytelling and extraordinarily expressive motion-capture work from Andy Serkis (who similarly brought Gollum and King Kong to life) ensure that this ape is far from alienating as the film's emotional centre. Meanwhile, as Frankenstein to this monkey-like monster, James Franco makes the biochemist Will Rodman a surprisingly sympathetic character, responsible as much for the good in Caesar as for the evil that is ultimately unleashed on humanity.

Of course, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is also, as its title implies, a prequel, and as such gains weight from the gravitational force of a future set out in the original 1968 film Planet Of The Apes, its four sequels, its 1974 spin-off TV series and its 2001 remake. Yet being familiar with these pre-dated descendants, or even having seen the spectacular ape-on-human mayhem in the trailer for this new film or the revolutionary imagery on its poster campaign, will not necessarily prepare you for the direction that the narrative takes.

In an early sequence, as chemically-enhanced superchimp Bright Eyes goes ape and demolishes Will's presentation of the drug ALZ-112 to the Gen-Sys company board, she and her fellow lab chimps are summarily put down and the project is abandoned – but it will soon become apparent to both Will and the chimps' handler Franklin (Tyler Labine) that Bright Eyes' conduct was rooted not, as it seemed, in naked animal aggression, but rather in maternal protectiveness (she had just secretly given birth to the future Caesar).

This key scene contains an important lesson for the viewer: while we may think we know from the start that an army of super-evolved apes will go on a rampaging revolution that will end in the violent destruction of humanity, in fact, animal behaviour need not be so transparent, and the motive behind the apes' rise, as well as the reason behind the human apocalypse, might not after all be quite what is expected.

It is this dynamic that makes the film so gripping. For as Caesar grows up clever but confused in the loving home environment of Will, his veterinarian girlfriend Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto) and his Alzheimer's-afflicted father Charles (John Lithgow), as Caesar begins asserting both his human and animal sides, and as Caesar moves to a shelter where he must learn to play the system and rise to the top like the confined protagonist of any prison flick, we are with the chimp all the way, but we are also constantly aware that our sympathies are likely to shift when (or at least if) Caesar turns from tyro to tyrant.

In other words, this is a rites of passage film where we are entertained by Caesar's eccentric coming of age, but constantly in fear of what adulthood, once achieved, will bring with it. The future, after all, looks very bleak indeed. Yet through some deftly handled misdirection, the film takes us towards its inevitable destination point via a route that is both surprising and satisfying. Here the apes may escape, but humans ultimately remain the engineers, if not quite the masters, of their own destiny.

Infusing its cutting-edge CGI with engaging emotions and arcs, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes builds to a vertiginous action climax on the Golden Gate Bridge, before ending on a sentimental note that is not a million miles away from E.T. - The Extra Terrestrial – although don't miss the post-credits coda with its understated itinerary for an altogether more chilling future (or is that sequel?). Like 2001: A Space Odyssey, or in a different way The Ape, the film explores the meeting point of atavism and modernism, exposing the way our civilisation and technological advances fail to erase our more primitive impulses of greed, cruelty and dominance – and it is a message that becomes blurred with the medium itself, all ancient dramas presented through state-of-the-art imagery.

In short, this is a great summer movie, spectacular in its realisation, yet resonant in its themes. The only real quibble is with the scenes where Caesar and the circus orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval) are shown signing to one another in (conveniently subtitled) sentences, and even communicating (and understanding) abstract concepts. This is entirely acceptable coming from Caesar, who is after all no ordinary chimp, and who goes on to do things that are even more exceptional for his species – but it is something which apes like Maurice, not yet chemically altered and artificially evolved, simply cannot do. Or haven't the filmmakers seen Project Nim?

Reviewed on: 03 Aug 2011
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Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes packshot
Man's experimentation on apes sparks a war for supremacy.
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Director: Rupert Wyatt

Writer: Rick Jaffe, Amanda Silver, inspired by the novel by Pierre Boulle

Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett

Year: 2011

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 12A - Adult Supervision

Country: US


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If you like this, try:

A Prophet
Project Nim