Apes is a proper Hollywood blockbuster, it’s fun, dramatic and over-the-top. Solid writing and great animation means this tale with a (mostly) mute protagonist is dramatic and engaging. Even the moments of unintentional humour don’t detract from the enjoyment.
My enjoyment of Apes was aided by my ignorance of the story. I’d mostly avoided trailers and had read nothing about the film. By the title of course, I knew that this was the build-up to apes ruling Earth (not apps ruling Earth, that’s another film entirely), but that was all. I had mentally composed a version of the film that ends with the apes sitting in government over the world. So as time ran on I kept thinking “How are they going to fit all this in?”. The film ends far from this point, with a group of intelligent apes escaping to a forest. The world-domination part of the apes’ arc is plot fodder for the likely sequel.
The star of the film is, predictably, Caesar, the super-smart chimp. More solid physical work from Andy Serkis and brilliant special effects lend Caesar emotion and, yes, a humanity that’s rarely seen in animated characters outside of Pixar films. We grow with Caesar as he matures from a cute little fellow, swinging whimsically through his bedroom, to moody teen, to enraged adult, to eventual leader of apes. Though Caesar’s chemical make-up makes him prone to rage (on account of experiments on his mother), his anger and violence is always justified. Caesar is sullen when he thinks that he is Will’s (James Franco) pet. He isolates himself when he believes that Will abandoned him. He resorts to violence only towards the people who wish him harm, and often stops other apes from killing humans. The first time he kills he does so accidentally, brandishing a hose against someone holding an electrified weapon. He lets a man fall to his death because he was responsible for Caesar’s friend’s death. Caesar is taken away from Will after becoming overly-aggressive towards a neighbour and chewing the chap’s finger off. But he was protecting Charles, Will’s dad and Caesar’s de facto grandfather. His rage may be excessive, but the trigger is understandable.
The beginning of Will and girlfriend Caroline’s relationship is rushed, making the rest of it immaterial. Brian Cox gets little to do, and his on-screen son (played by Tom Felton) is simply portrayed as someone who’s an asshole for the sake of it. Incidentally, Felton does ham-fist his way through using Heston’s “filthy ape” line, but it’s no more over the top than the original.
James Franco, at least in my limited experience, lacks the presence of a big star. Having only seen him in the Spider-man trilogy and here, he seems passable, but never outstanding. There’s something world-weary about Franco’s performances, as if he loathes what he’s doing and can’t quite give himself to the role. He was at his best in Spider-man 3, in a span where he had forgotten the circumstances of his father’s death. He was lighthearted, calm, happy and likeable, in his most believable acting of the trilogy. [Again, spoiler warning], Director Rupert Wyatt seemed to understand Franco’s lack of emotion: when Charles dies, the scene quickly cuts away from Will and moves on, as if Franco wasn’t able to portray Will’s grief effectively.
It’s hard to forget Gollum when it comes to Andy Serkis. Luckily, his performance here shows no traces of the Rings trilogy, making Caesar all the more acceptable. Not that Serkis is a one-trick Smeagol, but any similarities between his work here and Rings would ruin the illusion.
The other apes are well handled. There’s a big ol’ angry gorilla. There’s wise old orangutan, naturally smart from being in the circus (but nowhere near Caesar’s level). There’s a hugely evil-looking chimp (who I’ll call Scar), reminiscent of Stripe from Gremlins. Scar does little except look menacing, presumably he’s (she’s?) here for sequel purposes, a placeholder for future films.
And there’s a seamless segue into sequel discussion. Apes, like most blockbusters nowadays, sets itself up for another installment. Both director and screenwriter have said that the film deliberately sets up lots of possible sequel storylines. To me it looked like Apes was setting up a remake of the original. The 113 chemical (that Will created) is fatal to humans. It’s now spreading across the globe (via Will’s pilot neighbour, as depicted in the end credits). A spaceship that has disappeared in flight. All roads seem to point to the ship returning to Earth, a la Heston and his crew in Planet of The Apes. If Apes 2: Hyper Ape does follow this line, then that presumably spells the end for Will and Caesar. If we assume that the astronauts return to an Earth that’s being comfortably ran by apes, surely the process to get to an organised ape government takes a very long time. I can’t see the spacemen (and women) returning within ten years, finding a fully-formed ape-dominant world, and Franco appearing with a bit of grey in his hair. Serkis is less of a problem. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a descendant of Caesar running things. Serkis could pull the same physical movements again with a new CGI skin draped over him
Maybe the ship returns to a more chaotic Earth. It lands and the crew find pockets of rebels trying to fend off their ape oppressors (apepressors? Sorry). The apes were sympathetic; the chances of a sequel showing them as power-hungry and violent are low. Although having Scar in Apes does give a good set-up opportunity for a good apes/bad apes war. CHIMP WAR!