It’s tempting to judge Rise of the Planet of the Apes on the basis of the several marketing adjectives that have been applied to it. I’ve heard it referred to as a remake, a reboot, a revamp, a reimagining, and a prequel; it may in fact be all those things, but to be perfectly frank, I don’t see how that matters in the slightest. The best way to approach this film, I think, is to judge it on its own terms. And on its own terms, it’s a first-rate science fiction thriller. It’s founded on an engaging premise, it contains several great performances, it employs a wealth of astonishingly realistic creature effects, it depicts action that hasn’t been reduced to the level of goofy macho stunts, and it actually has something to say about broad topics like science, society, the division between man and animal, and tolerance. It exemplifies a healthier attitude in which a movie can be just as stimulating to the mind as it is to the eyes.
To be sure, director Rupert Wyatt and writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa were decent enough to placate fans of the original series with several insider references, not the least of which is the immortal line, “Take your stinking paw off me, you damn dirty ape!” But I warn you: If you spend all your time combing the film for throwbacks, if you spend your allotted two hours to just make comparisons to the old series, you will in all likelihood miss out on what this film and this film alone has to offer. Take, for instance, the casting of James Franco, who, after a miserable turn in the God-awful Your Highness, returns in top form. He plays Will Rodman, a San Francisco scientist dedicated to finding a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. He may have latched onto something with a virus that not only repairs damaged brain cells, but also boosts intelligence. His test subjects have been chimpanzees, most notably a female dubbed Bright Eyes. She meets an unfortunate end, but not before giving birth to a baby boy.
Executive Steve Jacobs (David Oyelowo), who sees Rodman’s research not as legitimate science but merely as a way to turn a profit, orders that all the chimps be put down. Rodman cannot bring himself to kill the baby chimp and instead takes him home. Rodman’s father (John Lithgow), who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, indirectly names the chimp Caesar. He has clearly inherited his mother’s intelligence, and the older he gets, the faster he learns. He is, for example, capable of speaking sign language by the age of three, and it seems he can understand Rodman just by listening to his voice. By the age of eight, he has become aware that he’s treated differently from the other people in Rodman’s life – more like a pet than a child. As is the case with real life chimps, an increase in size leads to an increase in strength and aggression; after a bad encounter with Rodman’s neighbor, Caesar is forced into a primate facility run by an uncaring man (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son (Tom Felton).
Caesar is given a crash course in the social order of primates, and in no time at all, he uses his intelligence to upset that balance. Now aware of his status as a second-class citizen, he uses his wits to lead an uprising against the human population, one that culminates with a final confrontation on the Golden Gate Bridge. All throughout the film, we’re continuously forced to ponder the riddle of who the real animals are; the battle on the bridge, an action-packed sequence that wisely avoids cheap thrills, only makes it that much harder to solve. Both species have the capacity for heartless brutality, and we see this in no uncertain terms. The obvious argument is that humans are the enemy, for they’re the ones that invaded natural ape habitats and captured and transported them to zoos and laboratories. Yes, but cruelty goes both ways. Would it not send a stronger message to demand justice peacefully?
Short of casting real apes and relying on their trainers for the perfect shot, there aren’t too many ways to bring these creatures to life in the movies. You can build an anamatronic puppet. You can do what they did in the original films and the 2001 remake, namely cast real actors and bury them under makeup. Or you can create them entirely on a computer. To bring the apes to life, Wyatt and his team combined the last two methods; they cast human actors and, through performance capture animation, digitally constructed characters around their movements. The results are uncannily convincing. Caesar in particular benefits from a body performance by Andy Serkis, who, thanks to director Peter Jackson, is no stranger to this kind of filmmaking. His gift for physicality, especially in his face, allows genuine emotions to shine through the pixels. We don’t see a computer generated image, but a creature with feelings.
It’s easy to make films that are entertaining. It’s quite a bit harder to keep audiences entertained while at the same time get them to think. Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully manages both, making it a rarity amongst action thrillers. If there is anything to complain about, it would be the filmmakers relying too heavily on references to the earlier films; one or two are acceptable, but anything more than that and you’re liable to alienate a sizeable audience. What I responded to wasn’t its association with an old film franchise. Rather, I responded to the intelligent plot, the well-developed characters – especially Serkis’ – and the style with which Wyatt applied to them. Of all the films released during the 2011 summer blockbuster season, this is one of the few worthy of praise.
Now that the summer’s coming to a close, a focus is returning to the more idea and character-driven stories that signal the Fall Movie Season. Rise of the Planet of the Apes definitely feels like one of those slower films that works far better when it’s working on constructing an idea than when it’s trying to deliver on blockbuster action film. In the end though it’s still a emotionally dominant and technologically remarkable film that shouldn’t be missed. The film … more
This is my favorite of the series, by far. The reason: it's the most believable...well, except for Freida Pinto whose character really didn't add anything to the story. James Franco has quickly become one of my favorite actors ever since I saw him in Milk, Howl, 127 Hours and add this one to the list. He does a great job of balancing love for his pseudo-chimp child but, treating him like a pet and the dedicated scientist who is desperate to find a cure for Alzheimers. John Lithgow doesn't get the … more
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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