Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Ape escape

Updated - August 06, 2011 05:17 pm IST

Published - August 06, 2011 05:16 pm IST

Chimp, the champ Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Chimp, the champ Rise of the Planet of the Apes

James Franco follows up his Oscar-nominated turn in 127 Hours – that pop-existentialist meditation on the imperativeness of courage, calmness and a mobile phone – by playing second banana to an ape. The young star may be the name on the marquee in Rise of the Planet of the Apes , but he's outranked in the end credits by Andy Serkis, the actor who most famously portrayed (rather, motion-captured) Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and who motion-captures, here, a chimpanzee that's this film's protagonist.

At first, this simian is just an adorable infant, handed over to Will Rodman (Franco) in a swaddling blanket. He grows up in the Rodman home like a human child, bounding about in his room in the attic. But gradually, his natural instinct asserts itself and he harms a hostile neighbour. His confusion — torn between the human knowledge that he has hurt someone, done wrong, and the animal impulse to attack, to defend — is a wonder to behold. Serkis reminds you that the best special effect is still the human face — at least, the humanoid face.

This scene occurs fairly early in Rupert Wyatt's film, and that's when I knew this was not just a routine summer blockbuster out to plunder the past. The first Planet of the Apes movie, seen today, is a curio notable primarily for its shock ending. (Although audiences of the time might have also responded to Charlton Heston's casting: a monument — Moses! Ben-Hur! Michelangelo! — reduced to a mere man.) Instead of travestying that memory, as Tim Burton's remake did, Rise of the Planet of the Apes grapples with an altogether different narrative, about a genetics facility (where Will Rodman is employed as a scientist) in a quest to cure Alzheimer's.

Will develops a brain-boosting formula that he tests on a chimpanzee — he inadvertently kick-starts the diminishment of his race. The chimp becomes so smart that, as the tag line promises, “evolution becomes revolution.” In the opening scene, an ape is captured in the jungles and confined in a lab cage. Eventually, the chimp portrayed by Serkis sets these captives free. He is called Caesar, a worthy name for a would-be ruler. He might have been called Spartacus.

Along with this slave uprising, Wyatt tips his hat to the prison-break movie, upends the Tarzan-Mowgli trajectory (here, an ape is distanced from its habitat and raised amidst humans), and fashions a cautionary myth about the perils of playing God. (It may be no accident that a spacecraft alluded to in the film is named Icarus.) Rise of the Planet of the Apes , then, is the shocking popcorn movie that actually traffics with ideas.

Wyatt knows that his material is ridiculous, but he takes it seriously and spawns an almost-epic, which falters only when it focusses on its human characters. The relationships between Will and his father (John Lithgow) and Will and his girlfriend (Freida Pinto) are pleasant but unremarkable, while the connection between Will and Caesar carries the charge of a failed father and his disillusioned son. These dramatic beats animate the earlier portions; the mayhem is kept for the end. By present-day standards, the filmmaking is almost classical, slow development followed by thrilling crescendo. Even the action scenes are artful — a quiet image of leaves falling from trees, like rain, raises the curtain on a rousing climax.

More than anything, Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes the case that American blockbusters are best made, these days, by non-Americans. Wyatt is British — like David Yates, who helmed the last few Harry Potter instalments, and Kenneth Branagh, who made Thor , the most entertaining superhero movie of the year-so-far — and like his compatriots he's adept at situating strains of human-scale drama in the midst of computer-generated spectacle.

Take the near-wordless dinner-table scene where Caesar teaches his “grandfather” to hold a fork as his “father” watches in amazement, or the later moment where, after being separated from Will and sequestered with other apes, Caesar spurns the prospect of returning to his home and opts to stay with his own kind. It's agonising to imagine what this premise might have become in the hands of Michael Bay. Smirk all you want that this praise is being heaped on a film with talking apes, but it's been a while since disbelief was so effectively suspended.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Genre: Sci-fi

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Cast: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto

Storyline: Apes injected with brain-boosting serum rise in revolt.

Bottomline: The best popcorn entertainment in a long, long while.

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