Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn’t so much a prequel as a re-imagining of the origin story behind Franklin J. Schaffner’s beloved yet campy 1968 satire. A group of genetic engineers out to find a cure for Alzheimer’s inadvertently create Caesar, an intellectually superior chimpanzee, who is at first friendly, but later leads a simian revolt against his human masters. James Franco stars as Will, the concerned scientist who raises Caesar in secret after the project is shut down, together with his father (John Lithgow) – an Alzheimer’s sufferer – and veterinarian girlfriend, Caroline (Frieda Pinto).
The film does a great job of balancing the action with the drama, starting slowly as it covers the science, relationships and Caesar’s origins, before a single outburst of violence leads to Caesar’s incarceration and the nurturing of his resentment for mankind. The film includes a number of subtle and nicely judged references to the original APES series, but they never pull you out of the story and Rise of the Planet of the Apes remains very much its own beast. While Act 3 escalates into a rollercoaster of relentless action, Wyatt resists taking the Gremlins route and depicting the apes as rampaging vandals who split into good and evil factions, instead keeping them united and fighting for a single purpose, while singling out notable individuals for the audience to identify with.
The human characters fare less well, with the villains in particular being disappointingly one-note. Brian Cox and his staff at “the worst animal shelter ever” are little more than sadistic prison wardens motivated solely by their positions of power. Meanwhile, David Oyelowo plays Gen-Sys CEO Jacobs like the mayor in Jaws, determined to make money regardless of the dangers or ethical dilemmas. Even on the side of good, Pinto’s Caroline is sorely under-used and we could have used more of the excellent Lithgow. Franco is a likable screen presence and sympathetic enough to root for but there is never any question that the true hero of the film is Caesar.
Surely the time has come for performance capture to be recognized as a legitimate acting medium, as Caesar would be nothing without the incomparable talents of Andy Serkis. His performance is one of the most nuanced and emotionally powerful you will see in any film this year, and certainly the most accomplished CG-assisted character to ever grace our screens. Whenever Caesar is not on screen you’ll find yourself wishing he was, only to be blown away yet again whenever he returns. Serkis and WETA Digital both deserve to dominate awards season for their work here.
Forget your comic book heroes, giant robots, fighting pandas and even magical wizards – nothing this summer can top the action, excitement and emotional engagement of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Rupert Wyatt has appeared out of nowhere to usher in a new dawn for a franchise long-considered dead that promises myriad new story possibilities for the future. The apes have risen – Hail Caesar!