When Bright Eyes - a prized chimp, showing considerable intelligence as a result of Will’s brain-enhancing drug - is killed after escaping her compound and causing havoc in the facility, the project is closed down and Will is left to take care of her baby, whose mental ability soon appears to be exceptionally advanced. It’s all a bit ‘Curious George’ for a while. The ape (Andy Serkis, enhanced by the incredible team at WETA Digital), named Caesar, grows up as a cute, furry member of the Rodman family, as Will continues to secretly monitor Caesar’s astounding progress, in the hope of playing God and saving his father from deteriorating any further.
But Caesar gets older and inevitably stronger, eventually winding up behind bars at a savage ape detention centre, run by Landon (Brian Cox) and his cruel son, Dodge (Tom Felton). Feeling bullied and betrayed, Caesar takes charge, looking to his fellow prisoners to riot against their injustice.
While the premise of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an origins tale, loosely based on Conquest of the Apes (the fourth movie in the Apes series), it also plays out a bit like a reversed version of the original. The film is carefully crafted to frequently honour the story’s roots - an enjoyable aspect for knowing audiences - but strikes a balance by not alienating newcomers with endless references and also delivering a fresh and thought-provoking narrative.
Despite looking like he could do with a good kip, Franco is perfectly cast as Will and should be especially credited along with Lithgow for his work opposite Serkis. There are also some subtle, tender moments between Caesar, Will and Charles, which keep the emotion driving through the film from start to finish. Lithgow, in particular, helps to sell the difficult on-screen relationship and his heart-wrenching portrayal of Alzheimer’s is stand-out, despite the fact that he has disappointingly little screen time.
But it is inevitably Serkis who steals the show as the WETA-enhanced ape, proving himself as the go-to guy for otherworldly creatures, after his stints as both Gollum and King Kong. Caesar is adorable, menacing, funny and real.
Secondary characters draw less excitement. As Will’s love interest, Freida Pinto may as well not be there, while two dimensional Tom Felton looks to have come straight out of Hogwarts to do his very best Draco Malfoy impression. Similarly, David Oyelowo doesn’t have enough time on screen for his character to go beyond anything other than a sneering caricature.
The big ape/human showdown at San Francisco’s Golden Gate bride is undoubtedly the film’s most exciting moment but it is a testament to Wyatt that he can make the more intimate scenes as memorable as the action, giving both parts of the film equal significance.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fast-paced Hollywood blockbuster, combining laugh-out-loud humour, edge-of-the-seat action and a lot of heart. While there’s perhaps less (human) character focus than one may have hoped for, the central members of the cast shine, and the incredible CGI work has now set the bar for future movies. What makes Rise of the Planet of the Apes even more enjoyable, is the fact that it’s success is a total surprise (yes, we’re looking at you, Tim Burton). The film is a brilliantly fun summer blockbuster - one that both honours its origins and welcomes a new, unknowing audience. It is very rare that we’re excited at the prospect of a sequel but Rise of the Apes is a great teaser for inevitable future instalments. It looks like Franco can add another string to his bow of many successes.