Rupert Wyatt | 145 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13
Prequels are far from a new concept (there are examples in ancient Greek literature; the OED dates the first use in print to 1958, though I swear I’ve heard mention of it being used even earlier), but in the past ten years or so they really seem to have come to prevalence in the movies. Perhaps we can trace this phenomenon back to The Phantom Menace, which saw massive hype and became the second highest grossing film of all time (it still resides in the top ten, albeit thanks to re-releases). In the years since we’ve seen any number of franchises go the prequel route, or in many cases what one might call a prequel-reboot (where we’re seeing the characters at an earlier point in their timeline, but it’s a reboot-style new ‘universe’). Since the mid ’00s we’ve had Batman Begins, Casino Royale, Hannibal Rising, Underworld: Rise of the Lycans, Star Trek, X-Men: First Class, The Thing, and Prometheus, with The Hobbit trilogy coming soon, not to mention cheapo direct-to-DVD ones for lesser wannabe-franchises.
The obvious one I haven’t mentioned, of course, is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, last year’s prequel / prequel-reboot (there are nods to the 1968 original, though someone involved said it establishes a new continuity) of the perennially popular franchise Tim Burton killed last time they tried to restart it (infamously coining the phrase “re-imagining” in the process). That was ten years ago and, if extras on Rise‘s BD are to be believed, this relaunch came about not because of the usual studio-looking-to-exploit-a-recognisable-IP, but because a writer had a good idea. Perish the thought!
The screenwriters in question, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (also producers), are due a lot of thanks for the quality of the final product. The story — about the son of a lab-tested chimpanzee, raised at home by a US scientist, who ultimately turns on humanity — was inspired by news stories of pet chimps attacking their owners, plus research into genetic modification. By taking these themes and issues and running with them, Jaffa and Silver have crafted a blockbuster that is both plausible and intelligent — a rare thing these days.
It’s also very well structured, for those that spot such technical things. It knows its own pace — not slow, but doesn’t rush to get to mass-audience-friendly action scenes either — but also, the layering of elements. There are numerous throwaway points that are picked up later; actions that have small significance but then return for bigger effect. None of this is played as over-emphasised “remember this for later” detail, as is often the case. Credit must also go to director Rupert Wyatt for his handling of these points. To put it succinctly, it’s just plain Good Writing.
Thematically it boils down to a man vs nature parable; about how we mistreat it, but also how we think we’re so far above it. Some of these themes may seem obvious, but they’re not overly spelt out — no one stands around bemoaning experimentation on animals, or lamenting man’s hubris in not taking the ape threat seriously enough.
As with many prequels, the story itself may seem needless: we know where it ends up, and as various balls are put in play we can see their ultimate destination. But the important thing is that you can’t always see their trajectory, and as someone famous once said, sometimes the pleasure’s in the journey not the destination. Here we become invested in the characters, so we care about what will happen to them in the broader sweep of the Apes story, not to mention the intricacies of how things go from the opening status quo to the conclusion. Plus, with a prequel set so far before the original as this one is, one can always ponder the question of just how far they’ll go in this story (it doesn’t connect up to the start of Planet of the Apes, for instance).
The ape, Caesar, the Andy Serkis character you’ll surely have heard a lot of around the last Oscar race, is definitely the star of the film. As ever with all-CG characters based on an on-set performance, it’s nigh impossible to tell how much is Serkis and how much the undoubtedly talented animators at Weta. It’s even more prevalent for a role without dialogue. Great acting isn’t just about line delivery, obviously, but when you’re hidden beneath the post-production work of an entire team of CGI wizards, it would help. The ‘making of’ material in the special features helps enlighten Serkis’ key contribution some, but also reveals that for some bits other performers played Caesar. It’s no worse than a stunt double, I imagine, but it doesn’t necessarily help the cause of those desiring mo-cap actors get awards recognition. At the end of the day, the precise quality of his performance is a tough call. The film does a magnificent job of investing us in Caesar, making us really care about him, understand him, side with him over the human characters… but how much is that Serkis and how much the animators, the writers, the director?
The rest of the cast are adequate but hardly register. James Franco is a solid lead but rarely called on to do much — Caesar is the protagonist, Franco’s human scientist just facilitates that. Frieda Pinto’s role is underwritten. Considering the film barely hits 100 minutes in an era when many blockbusters bloat to 140+, there’s room for her character to get a subplot objecting to the lab treatment of the apes. She’s awfully accepting of Franco’s line of work. As I noted though, perhaps they were trying to avoid being heavy-handed. Overall, John Lithgow is served best, his character slipping in and out of Alzheimer’s as Franco tries to develop a cure. It’s another in a line of recent fine supporting performances from him.
It’s a first Big Movie for Wyatt, having previously directed prison break thriller The Escapist, but he’s certainly up to the task. The dramatic scenes are handled with appropriate understatement, but there’s a flair to grander sequences — a single shot that shows Caesar ageing five years while climbing through trees is very well done, for instance. By contrast, his first three years commit the cardinal sin of screenwriting: a voiceover tells, not shows. But that’s a rare clunky moment. The final-act skirmish ultimately delivers on the customary blockbuster action front, offering a well choreographed and staged battle. This level of effort makes for an extended sequence that is infinitely more engrossing and exciting than any number of quick-cut close-up shakey-cam tussles of recent years.
I noted earlier that this doesn’t connect directly to the start of Planet of the Apes, and instead a sequel is well prepared for. There’s a satisfying climax and resolution to the main story, thankfully, but there’s unquestionably still more that could come. There’s the newly intelligent apes, not yet ruling the planet; but also a mid-credit sequence that continues a significant subplot that’s clearly left hanging, closing the movie with a slight Part One-y tang. Still, I believe that if there wasn’t a sequel coming it would function satisfyingly as a standalone film.
But there is a sequel on its way (does that make it a sequel-prequel or a prequel-sequel?), and if this gang of filmmakers can pull off another intelligent sci-fi movie, with a continued broadly-plausible evolution of this story, then it will be one to look forward to.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is on Sky Movies Premiere today, for the last time, at 10am and 8pm.
It placed 7th on my list of The Ten Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2012, which can be read in full here.