Dir:- Rupert Wyatt
Starr:- James Franco, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, David Oyelowo, Tom Felton, Brian Cox, Andy Serkis
I’ve always had a fascination with both Pierre Boulle’s superb novel and also the cycle of movies it inspired in the late 60’s and early 70’s. Such a simple idea has a seemingly inexhaustible ability to provoke important questions about the way we treat other living things, the assumptions we make about humanity’s dominance, the ‘progressive’ ideals of modern science, the processes of evolution and so on. When Tim Burton announced that he was rebooting the franchise with a remake of the 1968 original, I was understandably excited. Although the original Planet of the Apes was rather tastefully constructed, I assumed that Burton’s imagination, allied with some groundbreaking CGI, couldn’t fail but impress. However Burton’s declining powers as a filmmaker first emerged on the Planet of the Apes remake and the movie was a massive disappointment. Imagine my surprise then to find that a decade later the studios have returned to the franchise once again, only this time they are giving us an ‘origins’ prequel, that takes an element of the 1972 ‘Conquest’ movie (Caesar’s rebellion) and relocates it in modern-day San Francisco, fleshing out the genesis both of the Ape’s sudden evolution and humanity’s calamitous decline.
Helming Rise is the relatively young British filmmaker Rupert Wyatt, who directed the impressively impressionistic ‘prison-break’ movie The Escapist, starring Brian Cox and Damian Lewis. In that film Wyatt had shown a studied visual flair and an ability to coax some great performances from a compact cast, producing a sub-genre oddity akin to Jonathan Glazer’s reimagining of the British gangster movie in Sexy Beast. Therefore Wyatt’s casting of James Franco and John Lithgow as the father and son at the heart of Rise’s convincing drama was a typically bold move. Franco has been viewed as damaged goods by Hollywood since coming to everyone’s attention alongside Robert De Niro in City by the Sea. However following on from his re-emergence as a leading man in Danny Boyle’s 127 Hours, this is another role to cement Franco on the Hollywood A-List alongside comparably gifted peers such as Leonardo Di Caprio and James McAvoy. Likewise John Lithgow is an actor who can often serve up finer ham than a Newark Italian Deli. Yet Lithgow’s appearance in the bonkers drama that is Showtime’s Dexter showed us exactly what he is capable of when he channels his energies into understatement. Wyatt manages to squeeze every ounce of emotion and pathos from Lithgow and Franco’s poignant relationship in Rise, with Franco desperately seeking to engineer the remedy to his father’s terrible decline into Alzheimer’s forming the complex moral pendulum that swings in time to the fast-beating heart of this superior action movie.
Rise rolls back the clock on the original movies, setting the action in contemporary San Francisco where a large pharmaceutical corporation is testing Alzheimer’s treatments on apes. British stage and television actor David Oyelowo performs admirably as the smugly assured CEO, who sees the dollar signs flashing before his eyes the moment he realises that Franco may have engineered a ‘smart-drug’, but the depiction of the corporation is perhaps the weakest section of the film, ticking all the usual ‘sinister’ boxes that have been handed down to us from sci-fi classics like Aliens, Robocop and Total Recall.
Franco prematurely pushes through a treatment, AZ-112, that seems to improve cognitive function in a young female ape (whom we have seen captured from the jungle in the movies frenetic opening). On the day in which Oyelowo is presenting the treatment data to investors the female ape breaks out of the laboratory and runs amok in the corporate HQ, eventually gate-crashing the presentation, at which point she is shot by security. Understandably the experiment is put in the deep-freeze and Franco has to dismantle his laboratory and research team. However before all of that his ape-handler discovers that the female ape had recently given birth and the violence may have been merely an extension of her protective maternal instincts.
With a baby ape on his hands Franco is unable to kill the creature and instead takes it home to his father. Over time the ape, now named Caesar, after the father’s favourite Shakespearan play, shows high-end cognitive functioning suggesting that the AZ-112 vaccine may have been incorporated into the DNA that the mother has imparted to her child. Franco now begins to explore the possibility that the AZ-112 vaccine may actually be safe, and out of desperation begins to treat his father with what remains of the vaccine. Before long the ape is able to sign information to Franco and his father, as well as read and write, whilst Lithgow’s character is showing a significant recovery of memory that he had assumed was gone for good.
As with all such narratives, the brand new day, soon turns into nothing more than a false dawn, as Lithgow’s disease returns with a vengeance and Caesar’s robust growth into puberty causes trouble in the neighbourhood. The trigger for the films darker central section is when Lithgow, in his confusion, attempts to steal a neighbours car and Caesar violently defends his master from the aggression of the car’s owner. Franco is compelled to redouble his efforts to make a new, improved vaccine, whilst Caesar has to be rehoused in an ape centre. Here the plot veers in two directions at once, following Franco’s efforts to create and test a new vaccine, before it’s too late, and examining Caesar’s growing political consciousness as he endures the venal treatment of the ape centres owner and his son (played by Brian Cox and Tom Felton, with post Draco Malfoy American accent).
What is impressive about this prequel is the way in which Wyatt, whilst zipping through the drama at an incredible, often dizzying pace, manages to integrate some wonderfully astute details from the Planet of the Apes universe. Thus the Planet of the Apes emblem has its origins in the attic window in which Caesar is raised and early on we see Caesar playing with the head of a Lego Statue of Liberty. Also there is a narrative genius in the symmetry of the ape development and the human decline, which is effectively illustrated in the relationship between Caesar and Lithgow and is directly illustrated in a sly end credits sequence.
Wyatt’s use of motion-capture technology is a new breakthrough in cinematic visual effects, as it converts the movements and motions of ‘creature-man’ Andy Serkis into a thoroughly convincing ape, with none of the clunkiness of the Burton remake. Watching Caesar gradually develop an understanding of surroundings and how to most effectively utilise them is visually arresting, particularly the sequence in which he scales the redwoods in the National Park. What is even more staggering is the intense empathy Wyatt is able to foster from Caesar’s impossible existence amongst humanity. We see a happy ape infant, give way to a confused and troubled ape teen, who no longer knows how he fits into the family environment of Franco, his veterinarian partner (played by Pinto) and Franco’s deteriorating father. This is surprisingly tough dramatic territory, something the Ape movies were never frightened to venture into, as Franco, Pinto and Lithgow clearly have a strong love for Caesar, but this love is not quite powerful enough to balance off the disconcerting strangeness of the world beyond the window, that Caesar becomes gradually conscious of. Franco’s openness with Caesar, even about his mother’s death, demonstrates a further subtle layer to relations, which shows that Franco is better able to communicate, or empathise, with Caesar, than perhaps his own partner.
Once the movie ventures into the darkness of the ape centre it calls to mind Wyatt’s own earlier efforts on The Escapist, as well as evoking some of the horror of Romero’s Monkey Shines and the animated film of Richard Adam’s Watership Down. As Caesar begins to endure the deprivations of this bleak captive life, he begins to test the limits of his new environment and reassesses his relationship toward humanity. In this respect the movies nearest neighbour is Kubrick’s Spartacus, with Caesar’s intelligence gradually expanding his political consciousness till his first utterance of ‘No’, becomes a direct rallying call against oppression.
Where I was perhaps most satisfied was in the conclusion to the movie. A weaker director would have paved the way for a ‘Lost World’ style counterstrike from humanity, by leaving a cliffhanger ending, but Wyatt had the confidence to convincingly consolidate his main themes of ‘empathy vs cruelty’, ‘compassion vs greed’ and the ‘expansion of political consciousness as a means to fight oppression’, whilst intelligently outlining the decline of the human race. I expect the next part of the franchise to take up the story from the point at which the apes realise they are in control. One final remark, if you watch carefully, toward the end of the movie there is coverage of a space mission launch, the selfsame mission that many years later will bring those astronauts to a seemingly strange and faraway planet where apes who speak human languages are in the ascendancy.