The game-changing success of Star Wars tends to wipe away the memory of earlier science-fiction franchises, but before George Lucas signed with 20th Century Fox, the studio’s premier property was Planet Of The Apes. Based on La Planète Des Singes, a French novel by Pierre Boulle, the 1968 movie — a mix of Flash Gordon fantasy-action and comic-book Swiftian satire — spun off sequels (little-known trivia fact: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes was a pre-production title for the last of the original series, Battle For The Planet Of The Apes), TV series, comics, lunch-boxes, masks, action figures etc.
Ten years ago, Tim Burton’s re-imagining updated the make-up and scrambled the twist ending but achieved little else; now, Rupert Wyatt – vaulting from the likable British crime movie The Escapist, whose star, Brian Cox, gets a meaty human role here — adds to the apes saga with essentially an alternative version of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes (the one where oppressed talking chimp Caesar leads his dumb brethren in revolt against “lousy human bastards”) that dovetails in neat, witty ways with the original films.
An early sequence in which the ape hero’s mother is hunted by humans with nets is an exact recreation of the capture of Charlton Heston from the first film, and key lines are repeated in new contexts (yes, that one — but also a one-word response given iconic presence in the sequels).
There’s even a missing space mission and a Statue Of Liberty, plus a nod to another simian-related apocalypse (12 Monkeys) along the way — though chimp-spotters might also notice thematic parallels with the Matthew Broderick vehicle Project X and — ahem — The Powerpuff Girls Movie. It’s likely to please the fans, but how does it rate on its own terms? In truth, it’s a little too ambitious in its drama. A powerful sub-plot featuring human hero James Franco’s relationship with his mentally fading father (John Lithgow) spells out a back story Deep Blue Sea got through in a few lines, and takes too much time away from the evolution of Caesar (truly remarkable CG modelled on Andy Serkis’ movements) from adored foundling to imprisoned martyr to revolutionary tactician.
Recalling The Simpsons’ Troy McClure (star of the musical Stop The Planet Of The Apes I Want To Get Off), the role of ‘the human’ in an Apes movie is awkward for anyone of lesser stature than Charlton Heston (ie: everyone). The well-intentioned Franco, the lovely Freida Pinto, a weaselly post-Malfoy Tom Felton (as the prime ape-abuser), corporate suit David Oyelowo and reliables Cox and Lithgow all work hard to compete, but Caesar and his gang — including a signing circus orangutan (named Maurice after Maurice Evans, the original Dr. Zaius), who cannily pretends not to be clever to get by in the ape internment centre — own this movie. At heart, it’s a making-of-a-rebel movie, like Malcolm X or The Motorcycle Diaries, only with its chimpanzee protagonist slipping from pampered privilege as a pet to suffering in prison, while dreaming of freedom from humans, and fighting, plotting and strategising his way to the top of the ape heap.
Only when Caesar gathers his posse of smart monkeys does the film get past sci-fi-inflected soap and politics to pull out the action stops. It takes a while to get there, but the Rise delivers the best set-piece finale of the summer: armed human cops take a stand against a newly intelligent ape army on the Golden Gate Bridge, doomed by two-dimensional human thinking in a battle with primates who can climb as well as charge.