Top 10 films of 2011: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

A film from which few were expecting much turned into one of the blockbuster treats of 2011. Mark salutes Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes...

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

 Over the past few weeks, Den Of Geek writers have been voting for the films of the year. It’s a democratic vote, which inevitably means that things end up in a slightly funny order that not one individual writer is likely to fully agree with. But it’s still a fine list. Here’s the one with the most hairy animals in it…

5th place:Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

With more and more franchise reboots being announced left and right, seemingly on a weekly basis, you can still count the number of truly great reboots on one hand, even if you include JJ Abrams’ Star Trek, which was more of an alternate-universe sequel than a fresh start. And this year, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and Martin Campbell’s Casino Royale were joined by Rupert Wyatt’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes.

Effectively the second reboot for the Apes franchise, after 2001’s best-forgotten Tim Burton effort, Wyatt’s film takes place in an approximately contemporary San Francisco, where geneticist Will Rodman slaves over a cure for Alzheimer’s syndrome, which he calls ALZ-112. His father is afflicted with the disease, and it’s only a troubled relationship with his employers at Gen-Sys that allows him to continue his research, which is tested on chimpanzees.

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A chaotic and high-profile incident, involving one of the chimps being let loose into the corporation’s headquarters, sets back Will’s research by several years, but it also leads to a new discovery – one of Will’s chimps, weaned on his virus, has given birth to a second-generation ALZ-112 chimp. Will raises the baby, more or less like a human child, and names him Caesar. The ape is more intelligent than others of his kind and, soon enough, he learns that not all humans are quite as nice as his adoptive family.

The business of this article is simply to talk about why the film is one of our favourites of the year, but we must at least scratch the surface of the debate about the film’s lead performance. Although James Franco is top-billed, there can be no doubt that Caesar is the main character, and that the film does a terrific job of putting that to the forefront. For this, and many other reasons, there has been talk that Andy Serkis, who plays Caesar, deserves an Oscar nomination.

Serkis is a tremendous actor, and his role in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes only cements his position as the best possible proponent for performance capture technology. It’s not enough to merely say that it’s expressive, as we might have said of his previous simian acting, in 2005’s King Kong. Serkis’ performance was far more than, as one armchair commentator remarked, “running slightly sideways with wrist stilts on.” We can understand those who are indignant about the possibilty that recognising Serkis is reductive of the work done by the film’s visual effects artists, at WETA, but just a look at the Academy Awards shortlist in that category makes plaudits seem much more certain than the possibility of recognition for the acting.

But all of this quibbling over awards is only to say that we believe Andy Serkis gave one of the best performances of the year, which was one part of bringing Caesar to life so vividly. Credit obviously goes to WETA too, and also to screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who tell a story of science gone wrong that spans across several years, and refuses to make any broad strokes, delivering an tightly structured emotional tale, with properly developed characters.

It also throws up another of the year’s best scenes, at the ape refuge centre. One of the film’s only weaknesses is the way in which it uses the profiles of actors Brian Cox and Tom Felton to get around actually fleshing out their characters – we know they’re arseholes because we’ve seen them play arseholes in the past, and there’s little more motivation necessary. So when Caesar’s plan is put into motion, and Felton delivers a certain line, made immortal by Charlton Heston, you could be excused for rolling your eyes, or even tittering.

And up to this point in the film, we’ve skirted around the idea that scientists, experimenting on chimps, could have simply not noticed how one of their chimps was pregnant, or the idea of monkey subtitles, and now Draco Malfoy is saying “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn, dirty ape.” When I saw the film, there were titters from other viewers. And then Caesar draws himself up to his full height and bellows his first word- “No!” The intake of breath from every single audience member was deafening.

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It is the most stunning moment of the film, and the moment at which, to borrow a phrase, shit gets real.

If you were enjoying that emotional, character-led drama that they built up, then good- they come back to that later. But from that point on, everything that a mouthful of a title like Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes infers, comes true. The ape-ocalypse begins, with a fantastic battle sequence that spans the whole of downtown San Francisco, ending on the Golden Gate Bridge, with that clash of ancient enemies – gorilla and helicopter.

Given what “awesome” has come to encompass, let’s just stress that it’s also very “good”, instead of just “awesome.” The film is, loosely, a remake of Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes, the fourth instalment in the original continuity, but like Batman Begins and Casino Royale, it doesn’t aggressively overwrite all that has gone before. And yet, even with Easter eggs for fans to pick out, it’s unquestionable that Rise is as separate from the previous films as the others were from Batman & Robin or Die Another Day.

It boldly strikes out in a new direction, with a better realisation of a simian protagonist than ever before, and a touching emotional core, amped up by the understated and poignant performance by John Lithgow as Will’s father, but personified by Andy Serkis as Caesar. When somebody comes to write the history of 2011’s films, Rupert Wyatt must go down as the director who made the distinctive B-movie pleasures of the Apes franchise viable once again, and managed it without talking down to the audience too.

The idea of a virus that could possibly wipe out humanity is seldom more appealing, than when it’s used to open up a potential sequel at the end of this superior blockbuster. Bring on The Noses On The Faces Of The Ladies Of The Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes – whatever you want to call it, we want to see it.

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