The omens were not good for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Attempting to revive a franchise that was left in tatters by Tim Burton's lacklustre remake of the original Apes movie was a tough proposition, especially with that awkward, off-putting title and a director with only one little-seen Brit thriller movie under his belt. Yet, much like X-Men: First Class, this movie delivers a character-driven 'origins' blockbuster of unexpectedly epic and emotive proportions. Are CGI apes eligible for 'Best Actor' Oscar nominations?
That previous sentence may sound like a lost Philip K Dick novel, but the sentiment is justified. With the help of Andy Serkis (who else?) doing his motion capture movements, the ascent of simian Caesar from an orphaned, helpless baby into a powerful leader with a chi(m)p on his shoulder is fascinating to watch unfold. The script is magnificently structured to manipulate our loyalties while being both appalled and understanding (if not approving) of the acts perpetrated by humanity towards supposedly lesser species.
The dual themes of commerce versus ethics and animal testing are contemporaneous and resonant, with the skilful plotting putting James Franco's scientist in a sympathetic predicament that forces us to adopt his conflicted perspective. His father (John Lithgow) has been ravaged by the onset of Alzheimer's disease, but a breakthrough remedy derived from the brutal testing on apes promises to reverse the situation. This serum, when injected, bolsters parts of the brain and increases intelligence. But what would happen if it fell into the hands of an ape with a serious axe to grind against those who have grossly mistreated him? Especially when that ape's guardian was partially responsible for his mother's death.
Aside from the moralistic meditations that underpin the narrative, with shades of the sadly forgotten 1991 miniseries Chimera, Rise of the Planet of the Apes offers plenty of visceral treats for the viewers courtesy of Rupert Wyatt's direction. One sequence in which a band of fugitive apes storm through the trees, out of shot themselves but signified by the oncoming storm of falling leaves and branches, superbly conjures up a sense of foreboding terror. Every set-piece action sequence improves on its predecessor, again much like X-Men: First Class, culminating in a thrilling climax of pure carnage.
The compelling hybrid Serkis/FX performance of Caesar undoubtedly dominates the movie, but James Franco pitches his performance perfectly. It's a wisely understated turn that never seeks to overshadow the main attraction. His scenes with the superb Lithgow are poignant and earnestly portrayed, providing a refreshing change to the Michael Bay style of blockbuster movies – which treat characterisation and human interaction with contempt. Nonetheless, Apes does serve up a few stock characters that are primarily walking plot functions - namely Freida Pinto's love interest and David Oyelowo's money-hungry research boss - but that's eminently forgivable with the wonders surrounding them.
A fittingly fantastic prequel to the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, with a couple of winks to that movie thrown in for good measure, this latest instalment in the franchise is a near-perfect blockbuster that provides a myriad of visual and cerebral treats to devour. Once the story has tapped into your empathy, it relentlessly grips, confronts and thrills. Bring on The Further Rise of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes... and that Oscar for Caesar!