Nowadays, it seems that prequel-reboots of old franchises are all the rage. James Bond, Star Trek and X-Men have all been successfully revived, ready to entertain another generation. Next up is the ‘Planet Of The Apes’ series, which went stale despite Tim Burton’s ‘reimagining’ in 2001.
Surprisingly, ‘Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ feels nothing like its predecessors. There is no Charlton Heston-type character, no human heroics. There are outlandish sci-fi elements involved, but this is mainly a story about an animal growing up in a human world.
Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) develops a virus to cure Alzheimer’s disease. The project is terminated after a test chimpanzee shows side effects. Will takes home the chimpanzee’s baby and names him Caesar. Growing up, Caesar displays extraordinary intelligence, and begins to question his place in the world.
Caesar’s development serves as the film’s primary story arc. As he goes from playful childhood to aggressive adulthood, he never stops being the film’s driving force. It is touching to see him play, chilling to see him rebel – at every turn Caesar has the audience’s full emotional investment.
‘Rise’ is a monster movie in the vein of Frankenstein, but it is also a modern-day Icarus tale, an examination of human arrogance and naïveté. Unexpectedly philosophical and emotional, it feels nothing like any of the earlier films. While there are certainly similarities in terms of plot and theme, this entry represents a significant departure from the franchise.
The biggest change is the use of CGI instead of prosthetics. Not only does this present a visual contrast between ‘Rise’ and its predecessors – it enables the creation of characters not possible through practical effects. This is the closest that the industry has come to photorealistic, yet computer-generated, imagery. The use of CGI make-up over motion-captured performances – à la ‘Avatar’ – is once again a winning combination.
While ‘Avatar’ bombarded viewers with its imagery, the CGI in ‘Rise’ is limited to the apes. The approach of blending the real and the rendered is much more subtle, and ultimately it is far easier to immerse oneself into the story.
The wizards at WETA have done a truly stunning job creating the apes. Their facial movements are subtle and nuanced. The apes each look different, and have unique personalities. They feel natural, genuinely coming across as living characters that think, feel and express.
Caesar is particularly well realised – it is only a matter of time before Andy Serkis’ performance-capture antics receive more prestigious recognition. It is testament to the skills of WETA and Serkis that a character made from CGI can be so utterly captivating.
Other aspects of the film prove to be just as remarkable. The cinematography is effective. Long takes show the ape action in a clear and coherent manner – short bursts of shaky-cam convey chaos through the eyes of the primates.
Rising director Rupert Wyatt demonstrates impeccable pacing and an ability to handle tension. The human characters are rather one-dimensional – a minor fault in an otherwise flawless operation – but that is of little consequence in a story that focuses on animals.
The formula for franchise-rejuvenation has become very much standardised. Tell an origins story; throw in enough references to keep existing fans happy – leave it open enough to allow for future entries.
‘Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes’ does all of this, and yet it is much more than a prequel-reboot. It has more heart and intelligence than any film released this summer. Combined with the remarkable special effects, it is easily one of the best films of 2011.