RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is, much like its iconic predecessor, a thoughtful, emotionally affecting film. It feels much more like a character-driven drama than a generic summer blockbuster - which is not to underplay how good the final action set-piece is.
As the movie opens, Will Rodman is testing a potential cure for Alzheimers, ALZ-112, on chimps at the GenSys lab. When GenSys shuts down the trial, Will rescues a baby chimp called Caesar, not having the heart to put him down and unaware that Caesar has ALZ-112 in his genes. Seeing the impressive impact of ALZ-112 on Caesar's brain, Will starts testing the drug on his father, who is miraculously cured.
Flash forward a few years and Caesar is an older chimp, very clever, but straining at the leash of domestication. After a misunderstanding turns nasty, Caesar is finally impounded in an animal shelter while Will appeals for his release. Worse still, Will's father Charles has fallen into remission - his body resisting the ALZ-112 and the Alzheimer's back with a vengeance. This prompts Will to create an even more virulent strain of the cure, ALZ-113, oblivious to its devastating side-effects on humans. And while Charles refuses to take it, Caesar steals it and infects his fellow primates at the shelter. Because, while Will has become ever more confused about his identity as a Man of Science, letting his love and arrogance warp his judgement, Caesar has become far clearer about his identity as an ape. Newly politicised by his brutal treatment in the shelter, and disenchanted by Will's refusal to let him be anything other than a cute family friend on a leash, he leads the apes in a rebellion.
The strength of the film is the depiction of Caesar's journey to social and political consciousness. Andy Serkis, who stole every scene as Gollum in LORD OF THE RINGS, is simply brilliant as Caesar - portraying the journey from youthful naivete, to hurtful rejection, to resolution. I kept thinking that Caesar's story was similar to that of Frankenstein's monster - the creation of an arrogant scientist; not really a man and yet possessing a man's intelligence; confused and eager to fit in, but frightening the humans he meets. So powerful is Serkis' performance that you root for Caesar, even more than for the human protagonist. And when he reaches his final declamatory scenes, the audience audibly gasps in awe. It was a crime that Serkis didn't win an Oscar as Gollum, and the Academy should not overlook him now.
The Academy also shouldn't overlook the behind-the-camera work director Rupert Wyatt (THE ESCAPIST), DP Andrew Lesnie (LORDS OF THE RINGS) and the effects team that so vividly created Caesar and so seamlessly blended him into a live-action background.
The weakness of the film is that the humans are by far less interesting than the apes. James Franco's Rodman is far less powerful and charismatic than Victor Frankenstein. In fact, he just comes across as a sappy dope. His girlfriend (Frieda Pinto) exists merely as a foil - occasionally pointing to his folly but going along with it anyway. The corporate boss (David Oyelowo), is surprise surprise, amoral and purely profit-motivated. The father too, is simply there to tug the heart-strings, although John Lithgow is too good to allow a potentially mawkish final scene to become kitsch. Brian Cox and Tom Felton as the animal shelter guards are simply pantomime villains, and I do hope Felton aka Draco Malfoy, doesn't get typecast as the insecure bully.
Still, despite the cardboard cut-out humans, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES more than delivered in the character of Caesar, and in the final action sequence. And I really can't wait to see the next instalment in the franchise. As we've left the movie, we know that humans are going to be infected by the virus, but we haven't seen their hysterical response. And Caesar is still an ape who loves his human friend, and forbids his followers to deliberately kill humans. In other words, his rebellion is of the Gandhi/Martin Luther King variety. I am fascinated to know whether it is Caesar who is radicalised to the point where humans end up as slaves, or whether he is deposed by the brutalised chimp who was infected with ALZ-113. I am NOT however, eager to know what happens to Will, his drippy girlfriend or any of the other humans.
DANIEL PLAINVIEW adds: I agree, the humans are all ineffectual idiots - set-piece props for the more complex apes.
For me though, this was a more serious omission. There are clearly parallels in this story with the African American civil rights movement - and hence the question of whether Caesar is Malcolm X or Martin Luther King, and how the story develops from here, is key.
However, casting the "white people" as either textbook Republican money-grubbing baddies, or ineffectual liberal good-at-heart nicies, is in this context disappointing. The reaction of society at large to the ape movement is probably more interesting than the ape movement itself, because it gives us an opportunity to explore and comment on different reactions of difference, fear and prejudice.
This films gives us two choices - you're either a full-on exploiter, or a patronising do-gooder. Particularly sad was the way Draco Malfoy was used - he's just a sneering arsehole - and then there's the mentally retarded nice-guy who tries ineffectually to look after the chimps at the shelter. What polarised American nonsense!
Having said all that - it was well made, a lot of fun, some of the performances were excellent, and we can all rest happy knowing that most of humanity is going to be wiped out in Episode 2 - and the remaining rump are likely to be spunkier, more interesting characters (we hope).
THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is on release in Malaysia, Indonesia, Belarus, Denmark, Greece, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Russia, Singapore, Slovenia, Thailand, Brazil, Canada, Estonia, Lithuania, Poland, Spain, Turkey, the USA, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Israel, Portugal, the UK, Finland, Ireland and Norway. It opens next weekend in Sweden, Georgia, Hungary and the Netherlands. It opens in Italy on September 23rd and in Japan on 7th October.