When lab scientist Will (James Franco) tests a cure for Alzheimer's Disease on a lab ape (Terry Notary), she shows extraordinary intelligence, but is killed when she goes berserk and attacks the lab staff. Will then discovers she was trying to protect her newborn son, who he takes home and raises as his own son. Eight years on, Caesar (Andy Serkis), a very intelligent ape indeed, attacks a neighbour (David Hewlett), who threatened Will's dad (John Lithgow) and is sent to the local Primate Sanctuary. While Will tries to get his freedom through court appeals, Caesar sees how apes are treated by humans and leads them in a break out and take over of San Francisco.
I have to be honest, I initially had some major doubts about this reboot of the franchise, especially after the hugely disappointing remake (2001), but hope was kindled when I viewed the trailer for the first time six weeks ago. Having seen it earlier today I am so glad that I did, as not only has it rebooted the long floundering Planet of the Apes franchise (1968-), but has introduced it for an entirely new generation of young cinema-goers, and handled the concept of how the Earth became the Planet of the Apes so beautifully, making it the best Planet of the Apes film since the 1968 original.
Visually the film is a stunner, that features some absolutely superb cinematography by Andrew Lesnie, particularly in the shots of Caesar and the other Apes climbing buildings, trees, bridges, et cetera, which are created with some very fast-moving and slightly swooping shots that take us side-by-side with Caesar as he swings, and with some absolutely stunning, though potentially vertigo-inducing shots of them climbing buildings, and more stunningly so the Golden Gate Bridge.
The characters and their actors are also strong. Franco giving a very sympathetic and driven performance as Will, while Freida Pinto giving a deeply caring turn as Will's girlfriend Caroline, and Lithgow gives a performance that is deeply caring for his son and for Caesar, and which also tugs at the heartstrings as he tackles the character's Alzheimer's story with a touching, and wholly believable sense of fear, confusion and uncertainty. As Dodge, the chief guard at the Sanctuary, Tom Felton gives a performance similar to his performance as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films (2001-11) - smug, spiteful, malicious, and one who takes great pleasure in bullying others.
The performance which steals the film though is Serkis's performance as Caesar. Serkis is the master of motion capture performances, as proved by his performances as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-3) and as the titular King Kong (2005), so if ever a motion capture performance is needed for a film he should be the first choice. As Caeser, Serkis gives a very sympathetic performance and makes Caesar an ape who is filled with curiosity and a longing to know both who he is and what he can become. The CGI added to the face of Serkis shows this beautifully as Caesar is made almost human, with all emotions displayed on the face perfectly and wholly believably, with so much being in the eyes. As a result Caesar really isn't the antagonist we assume he will be at the start of the film, rather a tragic antihero, who we really bond with as we follow his life, his fears and self-doubts, his battle to overcome them, and finally his longing to be free.
Ultimately what the film is telling us is that despite the fact they are different to us - furry, incapable of what we consider speech, bags more energetic, more agressive and even less intelligent - apes, like us, have feelings. They feel pain, suffering, sadness, fear, just like we do. But most of all they long to be free. How many apes, or for that matter any species of monkey, do you see roaming the countryside in Great Britain or the United States? You never see any in Great Britain. You certainly don't get wild apes in America. They're all in zoos, or being experimented on in labs. They have no freedom. And this film hits hard as it shows us through the eyes of a character who we are drawn to from the beginning of his character arc that these animals yearn for freedom as well, as they are beautiful, free spirits, which the film captures so successfully as they swing through the trees when they are outside.
If you have not seen this film yet I strongly advise you to do so, as it is a sensitive, moving and hugely enjoyable piece of film making, that draws the viewer in from the beginning, and is a very strong reboot for the Planet of the Apes franchise.
Stars: Andy Serkis, James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, Brian Cox, David Oyelowo, David Hewlett, Tyler Labine, Christopher Gordon, Richard Ridings, Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Jamie Harris.
Oscar nomination: Best Visual Effects (Joe Letteri, Dan Lemmon, R. Christopher White, Daniel Barrett).