Apparently the Hollywood sequence of evolution lasts ten years. It's been that long since Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes marked the beginning of that once idiosyncratic filmmaker's descent into brand-recognisable pap, and the audience that turned out for that remake have since grown up, forgotten about it and moved on, leaving demographic room for a franchise reboot or rethink. The first encouraging sign about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that this is not some wayward auteur's overblown "vision" or "reimagining" - the kind of thing on which katrillions of dollars get routinely blown at this time of year - but a smaller scale, approachable When Science Goes Wrong B-movie, wrestling with issues of human hubris, frailty and responsibility. The director, perhaps surprisingly, is the Brit Rupert Wyatt, who came out of nowhere in 2008 with the impressive prison movie The Escapist, and who - despite the temptations of a bigger budget - retains a similarly tight focus in his studio debut. Rise is a summer movie of some intelligence that gets the job done within 100 minutes - frankly, what's not to cheer?
Granted, it's a prequel - an origin (of the species) story, if we must. In contemporary San Francisco, research scientist James Franco is raising chimps in a lab as part of a program investigating gene therapy as a possible cure for Alzheimer's - his work inspired in part by the mental deterioration of a former music teacher father (John Lithgow) in danger of forgetting all his notes. When the program is shut down, Franco brings his work - in the form of pre-eminent test ape Caesar - home with him, and things are good for a while. Caesar displays heightened, humanoid responses, picking up sign language and allowing his keeper to do much the same with foxy vet Freida Pinto.
Yet we're never in much doubt that this is a kept monkey, and a monkey who keeps being kept: first peaceably enough by Franco and Pinto, in an environment of picnics and good liberal cheekbones, then in a state department lock-up, a simian prison run by the reliably Machiavellian Brian Cox and his young helper Tom Felton. (If Project Nim tells us not to leave our chimps in the hands of 1970s scientists, Rise of the Planet of the Apes insists nothing good can come from entrusting monkeys to Hannibal Lecktor and Draco Malfoy.) The oppressed faction here don't want cookies and slop doled out to them, they want to grab it for themselves. Under Caesar's leadership, they organise. They break out. They fight back. Sound familiar?
At the centre of this putative blockbuster, there exists a vast and staggering visual effect - Caesar himself, another collaboration between the actor Andy Serkis and the mocap experts at WETA (Lord of the Rings, King Kong) - but the effect itself isn't key: it's how Wyatt chooses to integrate it. Caesar swings through the treetops in a manner helpful to the Fox trailer-cutters, it's true; and the prison yard sequences (where the Serkis-gorilla from King Kong gets pulled from mothballs) serve as a virtual playground for the WETA technicians. Yet the latter serve an important narrative function: they're where the film really begins to develop its arguments about the conditions we keep others in. (Startling it should happen to open in this of all weeks.)
Secondary - almost overshadowed by the prevailing apeness - but no less startling is how the film centralises Alzheimer's, with its altogether more deleterious effects. Lithgow's vacillations between sparkiness and remoteness put enough across for them to convince as a sincere portrait of the condition without killing the buzz around a notionally crowdpleasing popcorn flick, but it's an unexpectedly human touch - a glimpse of a world beyond high concepts and development meetings - that elevates Rise only further. (We may also remember that The Escapist combined external action with internal states, centring as it did on an old lag - Cox again - facing up to a slow death behind bars.)
Wyatt shows a remarkable gift for smuggling these subtle, thought-out flourishes into a tentpole studio project: he only allows us chimpanese subtitles when humans and apes have reached the same cognitive level, and proves particularly attentive to his minor characters, like the tremendously expressive circus orangutan who doesn't actually exist, save in a hard drive somewhere, or the human neighbour who probably wishes he'd chosen to live anywhere other than next door to Lithgow. The second act gets a little diffuse - Franco-Lithgow on one side, incarcerated apes on the other - but the third act pulls it all together with a series of chest-thumping scenes in zoos, corporate headquarters, leafy suburban thoroughfares and on the Golden Gate Bridge, as a single word ("NO!") becomes a cry of resistance to be heard through, if not the years, then whatever remains of the summer. The drama playing out on UK streets is its own kind of sequel - but they shouldn't (and probably won't) wait another decade to make another one of these.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is on nationwide release.