Each year, the (Northern Hemisphere) summer blockbuster season becomes a feeding ground for audiences hungry for celluloid entertainment. But not all films fulfil that ever-increasing appetite. Amongst those, many are remakes, reboots, prequels/sequels and adaptations. Some of these are opportunities to extend the movie’s appeal to reach a larger audience, whilst others simply cash in on name-recognition. Then, there are those that rise (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) from the lesser, critically inferior and at times downright disappointing competition to not only redeem the summer season of its mediocrity, but define that entire summer based solely on its own strength (Dark Knight – 2008, District 9 – 2009, Inception – 2010). This year, that title rightfully belongs to Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a bio-medical scientist who experiments on apes as test-subjects for a potential serum that would enable a cure for Alzheimer’s. When the project is terminated after the most promising simian candidate exhibits violent side effects, Will scurries its newborn infant from the lab into his own home where he and his father (John Lithgow) raise him as a child named Caesar. Inheriting the effects of the serum from his mom, Caesar’s intelligence and cognitive thinking grows rapidly, and when a violent neighbourhood incident condemns Caesar to an abusive ape sanctuary, he begins to rally the other primates to lead an uprising against the humans.
Early buzz from the trailers did little to inspire hope. Questionable CGI, a weird title, a monkey in the lead role of a tentpole film (ridiculous), James Franco looking rather stoned – were enough to generate low expectations. Yet that may have worked in the film’s favour. In the vein of other successful reboots like Casino Royale, Star Trek and Batman Begins, director Rupert Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have crafted a competent and engaging origin-story that not only pays homage to the original films, but have re-imagined the franchise for a new audience – delivering us what may be the surprise hit of 2011.
Much of the first act is familiar territory (Jurassic Park, Deep Blue Sea, Splice) where experimentations-gone-wrong serve as catalyst to thrust the plot. While most of the second act in those films explore the horror elements of the experimented creatures from the humans perspective, what makes Rise’s premise work is how Wyatt audaciously shifts the arc of the narrative away from the humans and onto Caesar himself during his banishment in the monkey sanctuary. Here, Wyatt devotes valuable screen time and plot points to render Caesar and the other primates as real characters, complete with their own distinguishable traits, quirks and motivation, making them truly believable and memorable in a way that I have not seen done in a film before.
Of course, this would not have been possible without the incredible motion-capture performance of actor Andy Serkis as Caesar. Serkis, most well-known for his performance as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, is no stranger to monkey businesses (zing!), having demonstrated a talent for aping (aha!) simian characters in Jackson’s King Kong as well as last year’s Monkey King in the video-game Odyssey to the West. In Rise, Serkis outdoes even himself, imbuing strong gravitas in Caesar’s character in scenes that are largely void of dialogue – with the subtlety of nuance and expression. Aided by WETA’s incredible visual effects, the end result is an incredible, almost surreal, heartfelt journey that compels the audience’s emotional engagement with the character – caught between the regresses of his ape nature and his grasp at the advanced coordination of man – on a tangible level that puts most A-list acting performance this year to shame. It’s no small feat, considering it’s a character that is essentially an all CGI creation.
The choice to focus on the apes does inadvertently leave many of the human characters playing second-banana (get it?) to their simian counterparts. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) plays a veterinarian who becomes Franco’s love interest – but the script never does anything to work her perspective as a vet into the plot proceedings. Brian Cox is largely wasted as the head of the ape sanctuary, while Tom Felton (Harry Potter) does well to incite audience hate as the abusive chimp handler but little to subvert their expectations on his ability to hone villainy-type roles beyond Draco Malfoy. Franco himself continues to display leading man chops, holding the first act firmly together with a relatable persona, but like everyone else, fades quietly into the background once the apes take center-stage.
Everyone has seen the third-act reveals in the trailer – the simian revolt/ takeover of San Francisco – but thanks to the strength of the scenes at the ape sanctuary, the action finale unexpectedly creeps up to the audience by surprise. And when the action starts – from the streets to an all-out war on the Golden Gate Bridge – it doesn’t let up. Wyatt relies more on astounding imagery (apes flooding into streets, running across buildings, jumping onto helicopter) as shock value to compensate for budgetary limitations. His greatest feat however is making you root for the apes, despite the catastrophe surrounding the humans. As such, the action sequences are damn-well satisfying because there is weight to the stakes and the threats involved – and the result is possibly the best action finale of a summer movie this year.
Praise should also be heaped upon Patrick Doyle’s amazing score. Doyle occasionally experiments with ethnic instruments and percussions to create solid compositions and memorable themes punctuating individual character moments. In the action scenes, Doyle’s score is suitably epic, creating an overarching scope to generate flow and pace between set-pieces.
Rise looks poised to enter into most top-ten lists by the end of the year, and rightfully so, thanks to the filmmaker’s care and respect towards the property. The ending also leaves things open-ended, suggesting a new trilogy of films that isn’t bogged down by the universe created by the old films (like X-Men: First Class), as Rise feels like a complete reboot that has the luxury of being from a prequel perspective. I am for one, extremely excited at the prospect of a sequel, because if that means more apes going apeshit (pun wholly intended) and humans going bananas (yeah!), I’m in.
– Gary Liew