As Hollywood continues to mine its past for multiplex fodder, it was inevitable that someone would look at the Apes series and decide that it was ripe for a "reimagining". The original five films – Planet of The Apes, Beneath the..., Escape From..., Conquest of... and Battle For... – are fondly remembered sci-fi classics. They are far from perfect, and I'm not a huge fan of the final two, but they all have some wonderful moments that have become iconic in their own right – particularly that final twist from the first film (which is stupidly given away on the cover of the UK DVD box set). So it's fair to say that this new one, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, has some pretty big boots to fill.
And fill them it does. While it's flawed, as are the originals (and let's not even mention the abysmal Tim Burton remake from 2001), Rise does a great job of bringing a fresh spin to the story. It starts from a very clever and utterly believable premise. Will Rodman (Franco), a scientist with a pharmaceutical company, is working to develop a drug to cure Alzheimer's disease. It's a very personal task, as his father Charles (Lithgow) is a victim. Rodman and his team are working with chimpanzees, and they find that a side effect of the drug they are trialling is a rise in intelligence. A big rise. The scientists are making progress, and are keen to move on to the next step – human trials – but when one of the chimps gets loose and attacks a board meeting at the company, the project is shut down and all the chimps are destroyed. All but one – Caesar, the infant son of one of the test subjects . Rodman takes him home, and as Caesar grows, so does his intelligence.
It's being called a prequel, but Rise of The Planet of The Ape is more of a fresh take on the original concept; in much the same way as JJ Abrams' brilliant Star Trek reboot, this Apes film almost occupies a different universe. It probably comes closest to Conquest in the original timeline, with its tale of Caesar being the offspring of an intelligent ape and leading a clutch of his brethren against their human oppressors. But whereas the original films were a parable about racism, here we're dealing with mankind messing with genetics, as well as our relationship with the natural world around us. It's a clever film, with a smart script, big ideas and powerful performances. And none of those perfomances are as powerful as that of Serkis, who plays Caeser through the magic of motion-capture technology. Serkis – who was so utterly convincing as Ian Dury in Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll – has become the world's leading exponent of mo-cap, first as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, then as King Kong in the Peter Jackson remake. It's Serkis's amazing, emotional and believable performance that carries this film completely.
As for the actors playing the human cast, they all do a fine job. Franco suffers a little from not being as powerful a presence as Charlton Heston in the original, but that's not his fault; he does manage to carry the human side of the film with aplomb. Also great – albeit a tad underused – are Lithgow and Pinto, who plays Caroline Aranha, a vet with whom Robson develops a relationship. Cox and Felton, too, are fine, with Felton – best known as bully-boy Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films – playing another bully here. And it's Felton who gets to utter the immortal line from the first film, just one of many nods to the original series: a certain statue is seen; Heston appears on a TV screen in the background; the opening scene of chimps being captured in the jungle mirrors a very early scene in the original of humans being rounded up by apes on horeseback; and the name Caesar is that of the intelligent ape who led the uprising in Conquest.
I've always been a big fan of the original films (particularly the first and third ones), and was bitterly disappointed with Burton's awful, pointless remake. And I didn't really see the need for another Apes movie, so my expectations for Rise of The Planet of The Apes weren't high, but it's a surprisingly first-rate effort. There's the odd slow moment here and there, and it takes a little while to get going, but the final battle atop the Golden Gate bridge in San Francisco is worth the price of the Blu-ray alone. This is easily one of the best films of the year.
EXTRAS ★★★★ An audio commentary with director Wyatt; an audio commentary with writers Jaffa and Silver; 11 deleted scenes; the featurette Mythology of The Apes (7:11), which looks back at the orignal Apes films; the featurette The Genius of Andy Serkis (7:48), which examines Serkis's motion capture performance; the featurette A New Generation of Apes (9:41); a character concept art gallery; the featurette Breaking Motion Capture Boundaries (8:43); the featurette Composing the Score with Patrick Doyle (8:07); the featurette The Great Apes (22:37); an interactive Scene Breakdown; and the theatrical trailers. Plus, being a Triple-Play, you get the film on Blu-ray, DVD and a digital copy.