Film of the week

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (12A)

4.00

Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, Tom Felton

It was all our fault. The question hanging in the air ever since the first Planet of the Apes movie in 1968 – how did it come about that the simians were in charge and the humans were in cages? – is finally answered in this origin story, ably directed by Rupert Wyatt. We've had a fair few creation stories on screen this year – Thor, X-Men, Captain America – but Rise of the Planet of the Apes, despite that unwieldy title, is without question the most entertaining and (not coincidentally) the most thoughtful of them. Enjoyment requires no previous knowledge of the original, its sequels or the disastrous reboot by Tim Burton that stank up the place 10 years ago. This is Apes: Year Zero.

It begins, as so often, with the arrogance of a scientist, albeit one desperate to do good. Will Rodman (James Franco) is pioneering a brain-cell serum that may combat the degenerative nightmare of Alzheimer's: his own father (John Lithgow) is fast disappearing into its fog. Will thinks he's cracked it after his testing of the serum on chimps shows an extraordinary climb in their responsiveness and intelligence. But the project, funded by a pharmaceutical corporation called Gen-Sys, self-destructs when one of the chimps goes ape in the facility and runs amok. It later transpires that this had nothing to do with the serum – it was a mother chimp protecting her offspring. Somehow this escaped the notice of the scientists.

Charged with terminating his subjects, Will smuggles out a young chimp called Caesar and raises him at home. His faith in the wonder serum seems to pay off: Dad claws back his marbles and Caesar shows himself to be a simian prodigy. Along the way, Will also lucks out with a primatologist (Freida Pinto) who apparently knows nothing at all about her subject – one of the few failures in the screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. (But hey, who cares when there's Freida Pinto to stare at?). The years slip by, and what was once going right now goes wrong: the old man slides back towards dementia, and Caesar, living up to his name, starts displaying signs of aggression, as wild animals will. This is where the story takes a much darker turn, and inverts the traditional heroic struggle of humans against would-be enslavers. Now the apes become the freedom fighters.

It happens after Will reluctantly hands Caesar to a benign-seeming ape sanctuary overlooking San Francisco Bay. A schoolboy error on his part: it's an ape penitentiary, with Brian Cox as governor. (A movie law: you cannot trust an organisation fronted by Brian Cox.) Add a cruel jailer-in-chief played by Tom Felton, previously known to all as Draco Malfoy, Harry Potter's playground rival, and you're heading for calamity. This middle act, with Caesar locked down in a filthy cell among other maltreated simians, is a sort of mini-prison movie, a job well-suited to Wyatt, whose previous film, The Escapist, is one of the best jailbreak pictures of recent years. It's also the point at which Andy Serkis, "the world's foremost performance-capture artist", according to the press notes, renders unto Caesar his full due. Serkis, who famously incarnated Gollum in the Lord of the Rings sequence and later King Kong, has made himself the go-to guy for this branch of CGI, and his nuanced facial expressions as the chimp hero are really something to behold. As a near-silent screen actor, he may be the Keaton of his age.

The plot from here proceeds in leaps and bounds, literally. Can Caesar spring himself from prison, appropriate Will's brain-enhancing serum and distribute it among his hairy clan in preparation for a revolt? You bet he can. The problem for the film-makers is that Will is notionally the baddie for having experimented on the chimps in the first place. Their fix for this is less than convincing: the head of the pharmaceutical company, played in immaculate evil-capitalist duds by David Oyelowo, goes from nay-sayer on the brain-cell virus to cheerleader ("You make history – I make money!" he tells Will), thus shifting responsibility on to, well, the evil capitalists.

The film conjures striking images as the ape revolution takes hold. There's a terrific shot of a tree-lined suburban avenue suddenly shedding its leaves on the unsuspecting joggers and paperboys; the camera peers upwards to see gangs of apes swinging through the foliage. And scenes of emboldened chimps causing havoc around city streets will, in this of all weeks, have a resonance. I should note that I didn't see one of those chimps carrying off a wide-screen plasma TV. This lot are plainly a higher class of hominid – they don't steal from their own.

The finale of the police attack on the Golden Gate Bridge is overstretched, as action finales tend to be, but it's worth staying for the coda, a forecast of how one untimely sneeze in San Francisco might be one giant influenza for mankind: don't be surprised to find another major franchise in the offing. And it may not be such bad news. As a summer blockbuster Rise of the Planet of the Apes won't regenerate any brain-cells, but it doesn't forget a sense of humanity while delivering its package of thrills.

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