After six feature films (including a remake) and two TV shows, a prequel exploring the apes’ rise to global dominance seems to be the only avenue left to tackle in the exhausted Planet of the Apes franchise. Borrowing bits and pieces from earlier films (most notably Conquest of the Planet of the Apes), 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes starts from scratch, rebooting the tired saga and asking that we forget all the prior Apes pictures. This is a fresh, baggage-free outing which disposes of the franchise’s pre-existing timeline to resurrect the Apes brand and pave the way for a whole new series. Surprisingly, the gamble has paid off. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a rare type of summer blockbuster which is more interested in storytelling and character development than mind-numbing action.

In San Francisco, ambitious scientist Will Rodman (Franco) is testing a special virus on apes that has the potential to cure Alzheimer’s Disease. When an accident leaves both the project and Will’s star experiment dead, he chooses to take home the baby ape left behind in order to save its life. He only intends to take care of the ape momentarily, but ends up keeping the pet to comfort his dying father (Lithgow). Named Caesar, the chimp grows up to be an obedient pet with a heightened intellect and a curiosity about the outside world. The household’s tranquillity is shattered, though, when Caesar’s fierce protective instincts lead to him being imprisoned in a shady primate shelter. He is soon abused and mistreated by both the staff and other inmates, leading Caesar to lose his faith in humanity. The intelligent ape longs for freedom, and looks to harness the power of Will’s viral creation to create an ape army and spearhead an uprising against humankind.

In addition to being more patient and meticulous than more typical summer blockbusters, Rise of the Planet of the Apes tackles a number of social and political topics. It brutally depicts Caesar’s abuse while imprisoned, observing the tragic darkening of his soul and sending a message about animal mistreatment. It also raises ideas about the morality of using animals for drug testing, and the evils of greedy pharmaceutical companies more interested in their bottom line than ethics. On top of this, Caesar’s abnormally high intelligence raises provocative questions – what rights does Caesar have? Should he be treated as an equal? Is it morally acceptable for him to be owned and treated like a pet? While Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t explore this stuff with genuine profundity (this is a summer action movie), the film’s alacrity is to be admired – writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver clearly wanted to leave you thinking about various things, rather than simply numb from countless explosions.

Once Caesar is incarcerated, the film is enthralling in the way it wordlessly portrays the ape growing from uncertain newcomer to feared leader, using his superior intellect to plot an escape plan and unite his ape army. During this section, the human characters are less interesting. The entire subplot concerning Will’s father is downright affecting, but the rest of the human stuff is somewhat clumsy and lazy. The fact that the apes’ interactions are so enthralling despite lack of dialogue is a testament to Rupert Wyatt’s strong direction and storytelling. It’s also a testament to the workmanship of WETA Workshop, whose vibrant, expressive motion-capture technology effortlessly conveys the complexities of the ape characters. The eyes are especially soulful, allowing these digital creations to express genuine depth and feeling.

Viewers expecting tonnes of ape combat may be disappointed by the prolonged build-up, but the rest of us will have no trouble appreciating the dramatic growth and character building. Even in spite of the lack of action, this is a briskly-paced motion picture which never noticeably lags. Plus, the payoff of marvellous – the film’s climax set atop the Golden Gate Bridge is a true highlight. It’s an epic battle pitting the awakened apes against armed forces, and – on top of being coherently shot and edited – it carries emotional weight and suspense. It almost goes without saying that the CGI is phenomenal, bordering dangerously close on photorealism. The only troublesome thing about the digital effects is that they sometimes lack weight and inertia (it doesn’t look quite right when Will picks up a three-year-old Caesar, and, later on, Caesar climbs into a car which isn’t weighed down by the ape’s mass).

Andy Serkis has become the go-to guy for motion capture movies, having already played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 epic. Here, Serkis is sublime as the conflicted Caesar, giving the character convincing life and conveying both Caesar’s interior revelations and craving for freedom. Serkis is the soul of the film; he truly becomes an ape, and he’s both lovable and fundamentally human. The rest of the cast are serviceable, but are not on the same level as Serkis. The biggest standout is John Lithgow, who nails the bewilderment associated with Alzheimer’s and is both believable and empathetic in the role of Will’s father. James Franco, meanwhile, is merely okay as Will, and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is completely wasted as a thankless love interest who has absolutely no relevance to the story.

Not everything works (a few corny references to the 1968 movie don’t entirely gel), but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a marvellous resurrection of an ailing saga. Its ending leaves room wide open for a sequel, but this self-contained story is completely satisfying by itself, especially with an extra sequence during the end credits which briskly illustrates the fall of man. I’m hooked, bring on the sequel!

8.2/10