Up until last year I had only ever seen the original Planet of the Apes, and I had seen that years ago. The pre-eminent thing I’d heard of the Apes series had been how the budget had been slashed and slashed and slashed for the subsequent sequels. As such, I didn’t really expect much from it. Then, last year, my partner and I sat and watched the entire series of films (on VHS no less!). I was actually astounded at how good they (mostly) were, and how they all strove to say something about our society as humans then and now. It iss a bonkers series, no doubt about it – the second film ends with the entire planet blowing up after a nuclear warhead is set off by a bunch of religious nutters who worship it (hmmm...) – but there is some serious intelligent thought behind it all. Planet of the Apes is a stone-cold cinematic classic and my favourite of the sequels is easily Conquest of the Planet of the Apes – where the slave apes, led by the hyper-intelligent Caesar, throw off the shackles of slavery and revolt against their human masters. There is some barmy sci-fi in there, but the film is really aiming to say something and seems to carry a real anger inside it.
The news that Fox were, once again, aiming to restart the Apes franchise filled me with more than a little trepidation. But then I began to hear great things about the script and how they were using Conquest as a jumping off point (rather than throwing out the baby, bathwater and logic as Tim Burton did). The end result; with a fairly great cast, astonishing performance capture from WETA and honest intelligence, is really very, very good.
The film begins in the jungle, as a family of chimpanzees are hunted and captured. I think it’s important to note here that no real apes or people in ape costumes were used for the entirety of the film. Every single ape is a performance captured digital creature and they look astonishing. Though some of the other visual effects come across a little hokey, the money has been spent in the right place with the apes. These captured apes are brought to San Francisco where they are used for medical drug trials – in this case, a possible cure for Alzheimer’s developed by brilliant bio-chemist James Franco. One female ape, “Bright Eyes”, shows particular promise with the drug not only working but enhancing her cognitive functions too. However, she rampages through the facility and Franco’s experiment is shut down. It is only afterwards they discover Bright Eyes was only trying to protect her child – a child Franco takes home. Franco and his father, once a pianist now deteriorating with Alzheimer’s himself (Jon Lithgow), name the baby ape Caesar and Franco raises him as his own son. Caesar grows into an intelligent, active young ape confused about his place in the world.
It is only when the adult Caesar, in the act of protecting Lithgow, attacks a neighbour and is placed in an animal shelter that the film really gets going. The shelter is run as more of a prison by Bryan Cox and his evil twerp of a son, Draco Malfoy. It is here that the majority of Caesar’s arc takes place, as he experiences firsthand the cruelty and callousness of humans towards apes – as he feels abandoned by Franco and as he witnesses fellow apes being carted off to the biotech lab where Franco works. Caesar first takes control of the apes, and then plans the breakout and ensuing revolution.
Director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist, this being only his second feature film) keeps the pace up and helps to really make Caesar the star. There’s a reason I haven’t named any of the human characters – because I can’t remember their names and they barely matter anyway. To a studio flick aimed at restarting a franchise, Wyatt brings a number of deft, intelligent touches – the leaves falling as the apes move through the trees and the cutting across large swathes of time. There are some holes in the story (and considering the number of hands the script went through, it’s not a big surprise) but they only become apparent afterwards, if you really think about them. For the rest of the film, you are fully engaged in this smart story of a young revolutionary who helps raise his people up against their callous and fearful oppressors. He just happens to be an ape.