Part SCI-FI disaster pic, part creature feature, part invasion movie and part cross-species psychological thriller, director Rupert Wyatt’s hybrid Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrives burdened by the last four words of its title.
They hang like an albatross around the film’s neck, drawing strongly negative low art connotations that began around the time a topless Charlton Heston hollered “god damn you to all to hell!” in an over-egged scene in front of the ruins of the Statute of Liberty on a beach in 1968. There were four crummy sequels pumped out between 1970 and 1973, two short-lived TV series and, three decades later, an awful, self-consciously bad remake from Tim Burton.
Enough to ruin the franchise for life, right? Enough bad karma for any semi-respectable director not to touch another Apes movie with a ten foot clown pole?
Ignore, if you can, any preconceived notions you have about the Planet of the Apes movies. Wyatt makes a mockery of all their monkey business by creating the biggest artistic surprise of cinema in 2011 – a deeply personal and searingly atypical multiplex movie with heart, soul, moral complexities and a plethora of superbly staged action sequences.
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease for a multinational pharmaceutical company driven – and this point is hammered home time and time again by his baddie “time is money” boss – by business and not philanthropy. Rodman’s motivations are personal – his father (John Lithgow) is sick and getting sicker – and remarkable progress is being made until one of the chimps the vaccination is tested on goes berserk.
The program is shut down and executive orders are clear: all the chimps are to be put down, post-haste. But Rodman takes pity on a newborn little fella called Caesar and brings him home to raise as one of the family. The chimp proves astoundingly intelligent, a result of the drugs given to his mother. The story between Rodman, his father and Caesar is lovingly rendered – warming without being cheesy – until the system fails Caesar and he begins to turn, understandably, into a misanthrope.
If you think the plot line about James Franco raising a chimp in his house with an Alzheimer’s-stricken father is too much of a stretch, history suggests otherwise. Nim Chimpsky, whose story was captured in the upcoming documentary Project Nim, was raised as a human, loved and brought up in a household in the 70’s until a couple of violent, instinctual reactions ended his integration with civilised society. Nim’s long and sad story included a stay at an animal testing facility; a life relocated from a mansion with gardens and swings to a small cage with straw and a slop bucket.
The correlations between Project Nim and Rise of the Planet of the Apes are striking. The Caesar character undergoes exactly the same dramatic arc but screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver add a science fiction twist: what if the chimp had been experimented on with drugs that made him just as smart (even more) as a human? What if he was smart enough, and felt vilified enough by the manner with which he was treated, to find a way to share those drugs with fellow apes — whose physical abilities vastly better those of humans — and lead a revolt?
That’s the screwy but emotionally resonant premise of this hot-blooded Hollywood mega-flick which delivers blockbuster SCI-FI just as it should be: sad, happy, fascinating and pulse-pounding, with several chin-scratching ideas simmering beneath the surface.
The film’s use of visual effects heralds a new benchmark in CGI representations of animals. Caesar was “played” in real life by the greatest invisible actor in history, Andy Serkis, who wore body suits later covered in post production by computer rendering. Caesar’s face, rich with competing emotions, is almost as life-like as looking at footage of Nim Chimpski, and his viva la ape-o-lution brethren are at times just as emotive. A final set piece in which an army of apes take on an army of police on San Franciso’s Golden Gate Bridge is a show-stopping slab of visual aplomb. But intense moments are also precise and brief: an earlier scene in which one of the characters reaches breaking point and hollers “nnoooo!” is a dramatic thunderbolt in this movie, and would have been humorously corny in any of the others.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the antithesis of dumb blockbuster filmmaking. Who are the villains? Where does empathy lie? Where is the soppy ending in which Right is put on a podium and Wrong relegated to the naughty corner? Not here, in this unconventional anti-Hollywood masterstroke.
Rupert Wyatt not only deserves an Oscar for his troubles, but a Congressional Gold Medal for having the apeshit craziness to take on a job that turned around the fortunes – however temporarily – of a farcical franchise.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ Australian theatrical release date: August 4, 2011.