There are a few films that I remember being incredibly aware of as a kid. Not as a teenager, I was aware of a hell of a lot of films by then, but as a really young kid. Planet of the Apes was one of them. I was too young to appreciate much of it, I didn’t understand the significance of the ending, but I remember being impressed with the look of it. Apes, talking. John Chambers’ makeup stands up today as an astonishing achievement, and Apes is almost certainly responsible for my love of Roddy McDowall.
When Tim Burton decided to remake Apes in 2001, I was pretty certain it was a bad idea. By that time I absolutely got the original, and didn’t think it was something you needed to remake. I was right. I didn’t hate Burton’s remake, but I don’t think many people would describe it as being particularly good.
And so to Rise. When it was announced, it sounded like another terrible idea. A prequel? Hasn’t that been done? I didn’t hold out much hope. And then a particular person got attached to the cast list: Andy Serkis. When Serkis gets involved in any project I take notice, regardless of the medium. His work on the console game Enslaved is outstanding, he turns in a great performance in Heavenly Sword, and everyone is aware of what a great job he did working with Peter Jackson on King Kong and Lord of the Rings. He’s a great actor, a master of motion and performance capture, and seemed like a magnificent choice for McDowall’s modern day counterpart.
Put simply, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the best film I’ve seen this year. Serkis is absolutely stunning under a layer of digital ape skin. Thanks to today’s performance capture technology, every facial twitch, subtle wrinkle of the brow, and expression of rage is translated directly into the digital portrayal. You can actually see Serkis underneath the layers at times, just like traditional makeup effects. It’s incredible to see.
Serkis isn’t solely responsible for Apes roaring success. The script is brilliantly understated at times, never insulting the intelligence, and sensibly taking its time to establish each character. Rupert Wyatt’s direction is confident and steady, and he knows exactly how to make the most of the effects. It goes without saying that he’s absolutely one to watch in the future. Patrick Doyle’s score is excellent too (the second time in recent weeks I’ve mentioned Doyle in a review actually).
My only minor complaint would be that James Franco doesn’t seem to be giving it his all. In a film where Serkis’ raw emotion is so powerful - the scenes with his digital ape and John Lithgow are incredibly moving, and there are similarly affecting moments where only Serkis and his digital apes are on screen - Franco seems to be irritatingly lifeless. You could argue that his character lacks the ability to react with suitably strong emotions, but at times I found his performance irksome. It’s not enough to ruin the film though, there’s more than enough life and emotion around him to compensate.
Supporting cast beyond Franco are all great. Let’s be honest, you’ve got to pay attention to any film with Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, and John Lithgow on the cast list. Freida Pinto doesn’t really make the role her own, but it’s a pretty thinly written character in the first place. David Oyelowo does a decent job as Franco’s boss, and Tom “Draco Freaking Malfoy” Felton is excellent as the abusive ape sanctuary worker (so much so that it took me a while to place him).
There’s also a raft of nods and in jokes to the original films, some of which are more welcome than others. There’s a pretty gratuitous use of a particularly famous quote from the original that really didn’t need to be there, but by and large the references are appreciated.
Rise then: a resounding success. Best film so far this year, a worthy Oscar contender when the time comes (here’s hoping it’s not overlooked), and a film you desperately have to go and see at the cinema.