I can still remember my first viewing of the original Planet of the Apes. It was relatively late – well, everyone else had gone to bed – and I don’t think I was much older than twelve. This meant I was young enough to not actually notice the hammy Charlston Heston (teeth!) acting; the pretty naff special effects; the 60’s William-Shatner-has-just-discovered-something-shocking! style soundtrack. But most importantly, I was young enough to not know anything about the ending.
These days it’s right there, on the DVD cover, which rather spoils it for newcomers, doesn’t it? Or perhaps the age of the average DVD buyer means that the twist can already be guessed halfway through the film, anyway, as Marc rather superiorly informed me. But I’ve always been a little dense when it comes to twists. I hardly ever see them coming. Which means my twelve-year-old self was gazing, utterly shocked, at the final shot of the beach with the statue in the background: You mean he was on Earth the whole time? Really? OH MY GOD THAT’S SO CREEPY!!
Then I turned the TV off and crept up to bed, where I lay awake thinking about it.
A few years later I watched the sequel, which sucked. And a few years after that, I watched the Tim Burton version, which also sucked. I think my main problem with the franchise since the first one is that there’s nothing surprising about them; nothing that makes your jaw actually hang open, with a fantastic I-didn’t-see-that-coming! feeling, while everyone around you also attempts to digest what has just unfolded before their eyes. It’s something which requires a very clever filmmaker to achieve.
I wasn’t too interested when I heard about Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Like I said, I was pretty fed up with the entire franchise. But then I decided to go see it, as a result of two things. The first thing was my brother-in-law raving about it. This in itself wouldn’t have persuaded me – he also thought that Wolverine was the best film of 2009. But then I read the Empire review, and decided that maybe it was worth checking out. Even so, I went in with my expectations pretty low.
Well. It’s not often that I come out of a film thinking that perhaps, just maybe, it’s worthy of the fabled five star rating. It’s not often that I come out of a film totally satisfied with it, either; no glaring plot holes; no bits I wished had been cut; nothing, in fact, that I would change about it. Perhaps I need to see it again to make sure, but for now, I feel fully justified in saying that Rise is almost certainly a five star film.
The plot is actually pretty simple. Scientists are experimenting on apes in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. These experiments make the apes more intelligent, especially one, called Bright Eyes (yes). Disaster befalls the facility and it has to be shut down, all the apes killed except for one – Bright Eyes’ baby son, Caesar. He is taken home by James Franco’s character, and basically raised as a son – matters complicated by the fact that Bright Eyes’ genetic mutation seems to have been passed onto her son. After protecting his foster grandfather from a vicious neighbour, Caesar is impounded, meets other apes and plans a rebellion. It’s a credit to the fantastic Andy Serkis CGI that by this point, the audience really does think of Caesar as almost human, and that this impounding is utterly unfair as he was behaving merely as any boy would to protect a beloved grandparent.
Once impounded his story really starts – he realises that he has been pampered, treated as a member of the family, while other apes are not. They are treated horribly – Franco’s character is misled as to the true nature of the place, and Caesar wakes up to the reality of his situation with a nasty bump. He also has to find a way to deal with the other apes, who aren’t necessarily good guys…
One of the things I loved about this film is how closely related it is to the original. I absolutely loved the oblique reference to the lost ship of the original film. I also liked how the characteristics of the different apes are similar. So we’ve got the smart orang-utan Maurice (question: can they really be taught sign language?); the peace-loving chimpanzees; and the brutal gorillas. While the terrifying Buck is absolutely loyal to Caesar, he still needs to be kept on a tight leash.
So let’s get to the moment when the collective jaws of the audience hit the floor. This is what I loved about the film; just one genuinely brilliant moment, when you can’t quite believe what you’ve just seen. And the build up to it was brilliant, too. While Tom Felton might well have been Draco Malfoy, one thing he certainly is not is Charlton Heston; and his rendition of ‘Get your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!” made the cinema grin in an ironic way; yes, I suppose they had to get it in somewhere. But then, with the next bit, you actually could have heard a pin drop. Very, very clever filmmaking, creating a scenario right up there with a twelve-year-old staring at the Statue of Liberty on the TV screen, late at night.