About half an hour ago, I got back from seeing ‘Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes‘ (henceforth ‘ROTPOTA’ for brevity’s sake) and I’m buzzing about it so I want to do a review before that fades.
I am a huge fan of the original Apes films. I watched them on telly as a kid, I was obsessed with the TV series and the cartoon series too. Roddy McDowall was amiably wonderful as Galen in the TV series but he was stunning as Cornelius and Caesar in the films. The Tim Burton reboot of 2001 was even worse than his reboot of Willy Wonka. And that was godawful. So I was very worried about ‘ROTPOTA.’
I loved it!
WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!
(Well, they won’t be major ones but, like ‘Super 8,’ one of the reasons I loved this film is that I didn’t know every turn and weave of the story before I went in. The trailer is really quite clever in the way it shows, obviously, elements from the film but actually doesn’t give away major plot points. So I’ll hint at stuff but I won’t be explicit. Why are you even reading this – go and see the film first!)
I love all five original Apes films but my favourite is ‘Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes’ in which a young, talking ape called Caesar (played by McDowall, of course) leads an ape revolution. ‘Conquest’ is a perfect science fiction film: ostensibly about apes it is actually about the nature of humanity, our brutality and willingness to engage in mass slavery and other horrors.
‘ROTPOTA’ is kind of a remake of ‘Conquest’ but not really at all. The premise for how apes get uplifted to (and beyond?) human intelligence has been changed, there is no involvement of apes from the future and the new Caesar himself isn’t as garrulous as McDowall.
This entire film rests on that new Caesar’s shoulders. A totally digital character, Andy Serkis breathes life into him in a way I’ve never seen before. I’m not a huge fan of CGI because so much of it is so poor that it completely ruins my immersion in a film. That’s not the case here. Caesar’s face is shockingly expressive. Every nuance of brow movement, his eyes, even when he’s huffing and puffing in distress at the glass separating him from his human family, it’s all beautiful. Serkis and the animators deserve an Oscar for how they make Caesar real and made me forget he’s a collection of polygons and shaders.
Turning to the fully human cast, James Franco as Will Rodman (the scientist who inadvertently uplifts apekind) delivers a moving, detailed performance. He pitches it more like an indie film than the summer blockbuster it actually is. The only criticism I have for John Lithgow (Rodman’s Alzheimers-crippled father) is that he’s not in the film enough. I loved the chemistry between Franco and Lithgow and also between them and Caesar. How often have we witnessed characters smiling / crying at the space they think a CGI character will be? Not in ‘ROTPOTA.’ From being a tiny, cute ape baby to his full alpha malehood, Caesar is embedded in the family. Yes, that’s partly due to the hyper-realistic CGI but the rest of it is Franco and Lithgow selling it to us. Freida Pinto was good but under-used, I felt. In narrative terms, she could easily have been written out. I did feel someone at the studio must have said, “HEY! Where’s the love interest?? Throw a girlfriend in there!”
Props to one of my favourite actors, David Hewlett, as long-suffering neighbour Hunsicker. If you follow all the shit that happens to this poor bloke, it’s actually a very dark comedy. Hewlett was excellent in the various Stargate shows and also twitchily irascible in ‘Splice,’ it’s good to see him in a major release like this. Also very good was Tom ‘Draco’ Felton as one of the handlers at the Primate House Of Doom. I only noticed his American accent slip once and his performance was convincingly nasty. As a nice little nod to us old people who like the originals, Felton gets to utter Charlton Heston’s immortal line. No, not that one at the end, the one where he’s in the net. Where I hope that Hewlett doesn’t typecast as beleaguered / grumpy bloke, I also hope that Felton doesn’t get stuck with being the nasty guy. He should do a silly romcom or something similar next.
The story of how Caesar ends up leading the ape rebellion unfolds with a great pace but also with enough time that we become emotionally involved and invested in the characters. Something films like ‘Transformers 3,’ ‘Green Lantern,’ and (apart from Magneto) ‘X-Men: First Class’ failed at this year. Yes, this is a big action film with action set pieces. The extended ape escape is thrilling! Logically I know that’s a CGI silverback hurling a CGI parking meter at a cop car but it all feels very real. The drama is in the emotional connection we have made with the apes. When we see Franco and Caesar hugging in the end scene and Caesar says the words, ‘I am home,’ there’s real emotion precisely because the film put in the backstory. We’ve seen Franco holding baby Caesar, we remember how cute he looked as he bottle fed himself. And now here he is, the Lenin of the ape world.
And on that note, this is probably the most socialist revolutionary film to come out of Hollywood in a long time. Caesar at first longs to go home to his human / ruling class family. But, eventually, he voluntarily decides to stay with his brothers and sisters in the ape house. There’s even a sign exchange between him and a proto Dr. Zaius where he explains the power in a union. Billy Bragg must have teared up at that bit. The orang replies, ‘Apes are stupid,’ before ambling off. He probably votes New Labour, the reformist.
Essentially, ‘ROTPOTA’ can be seen as a monster film. And you know a monster film is great when you find yourself siding with the ‘monsters’ against humanity. Like the best of the original Apes films, ‘ROTPOTA,’ makes us question our own morality and also our status as alleged top species on this planet. What gives us the right to torture sentient species in order to develop new wonder drugs? (Or, more likely, new cosmetics?) What is our speciesist arrogance based on?
I adored ‘ROTPOTA’ and if you get the chance to see it in the cinema, in all it’s huge, widescreen glory, please go. Not just for the spectacle of the action scenes but so you see every touch, every interaction between the fabulous Caesar and the damn dirty humans he eventually overthrows.