By Tom Nixon
Rupert Wyatt’s immensely entertaining Rise of the Planet of the Apes works on the premise that while an obsession with progress can open our minds and pave the way for a brighter future, it also cultivates holier-than-thou arrogance and a condescending disdain for our biological history that may well come back ‘n bite us in the ass. It’s a riff on ‘Frankenstein’ which reminds that although technology may allow us some degree of dominion over nature, the real war is against the beast within ourselves — a war we’re never likely to win.
If it ultimately lays on its ironies far too thick (humanised apes and bestial humans, technological progress equals ethical regression, etc.) when a more even-handed, bittersweet meditation on modern society’s philosophy would doubtless be more potent, it is a summer blockbuster, and while I would never adhere to the idea that we sometimes ask too much of our mainstream cinema, the film succeeds against the more modest goals of such a context. The narrative is gripping despite necessarily following a telegraphed route (this is the curse and beauty of prequels; you can’t employ much narrative surprise, hence you can’t rely on it) largely due to research ape Caesar (Andy Serkis, naturally), the monstrous creation at its centre who chews up the screen from start to finish, his every posture and gesture ablaze with pent up emotions a thousand different shades.
In his transition from dizzily gifted, gleefully curious child into confused, hormonal adolescent and ultimately the frightening leader of a brutal uprising, Caesar proves a convincing and intriguingly empathetic portrayal of how the seeds of war and fascism (he uses the roman symbol of such in uniting his brethren) are first planted and teased into fruition. He seems to evolve more quickly than the film, and as the wounds in those eerily intelligent eyes begin to fester he starts dragging it behind him by the scruff of the neck, a ghost of the future returned to force upon the audience a vision of just where all this scientific meddling will lead us.
A handful of indelible images continue to linger: Caesar’s liberating climbs up majestic redwoods in a shivery foreshadowing of what’s to come; Caesar’s return mid-revolt to the home of geneticist and adopter-betrayer Will Rodman (James Franco) to watch him, expression unreadable, while he sleeps; Caesar tenderly helping Will’s Alzheimer’s-riddled father (John Lithgow) to eat properly; Caesar electrocuting the sadistic keeper at the grimy animal shelter in which he is incarcerated for attacking a neighbour, a man played by Draco Malfoy’s Tom Felton in a scene which happens to remind of that amazing moment when Harry near-kills Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, our hero’s entirely justified manchild rage leading him astray (the difference being, Harry pulls back before it’s too late).
Hell, there are a fair few images during Caesar’s rise which tower over anything involving the humans, and while I suppose that’s fitting given his singular presence, by the climactic scenes of him going ape-shit he’s become so dominantly empathetic (partly by process of elimination) that little more than the adrenaline rush of an action spectacle remains — barely a pinch of ambiguity to be found. Ultimately, it’s a film that asks fascinating questions without showing much curiosity in the answering of them; slicker and neater than the original Planet of the Apes by a good distance (let’s not mention Tim Burton’s catastrophe), but hardly as mythic, provocative or insightful regarding the arrogance and vulnerability of humanity, let alone colonialism and bigotry. In that respect, the film feels like a product of the cartoonish humans herein, possessed of an uncomplicated certainty that may finally be its downfall.
Tom Nixon is the Senior Film Critic for the magazine.