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 works of course as a prequel to the classic Charleton Heston film “Planet of the Apes”, telling the story of how this ape civilization came to be. A serious chain of events transpires and snowballs out of control after a young geneticist (Franco) develops what appears to be the cure for Alzheimer’s in an attempt to cure his dying father (Lithgow). After testing the drug on an ape named Bright Eyes that goes berserk, the only living trace of the drug left is her son, Caesar, who slowly develops in both intelligent and strength faster than any of the scientists at Genysis could have imagined. James Franco, a recurring underrated actor in the Hollywood system that earned a well-deserved nomination for his incredible part carrying the movie 127 Hours, turns in some awesome work here as well. Sure, it’s not Oscar-worthy, but it’s strong enough to make his expositional scenes interesting. Brian Cox also steals a few scenes as the owner of the ape reserve Caesar’s imprisoned in during the latter half of the film. The real and only shame the film carries with its actors is Tom Felton as one of the employees at the reserve. Being as his character never really serves any purpose, as he’s never really given any depth, Felton’s “Snidely Whiplash”-esque portrayal often just doesn’t gel with the scenes it’s interlaced with, and rubs off a little annoying. John Lithgow, appearing in a few scenes as Franco’s father, absolutely steals the show every time he comes on screen. Portraying the disease of Alzheimer’s is no easy task, but Lithgow perfectly depicts the helplessness and subsequent anger that comes with it. The real beauty and majesty of this film comes in the form of its main star, Caesar the ape, played to perfection by motion capture patriarch Andy Serkis. If you’ve seen Lord of the Rings or Peter Jackson’s King Kong, you’re familiar with Serkis’ mastery of the motion capture art. The movie is worth seeing for it’s technical proficiency alone. It’s actually a genius move on Fox’s part to only spend $90 million on a film like Rise of the Planet of the Apes with there being little action set pieces in it (aside from one huge sequence at the end), allowing a majority of that money to be spent on perfecting these groundbreaking effects. There’s a shot or two that may look a little shaky, but the shots that need to work look spectacular. There are many sequences where the apes look so realistic thanks to the groundbreaking special effects that if you didn’t know any better you could be easily fooled into thinking it was all reality, especially towards the end of the film once multiple distinct apes are introduced and the special effects crew rises to the challenge of making them all unique and gorgeous. Coming down to Serkis’ performance itself, the man is an acting revolution that brings in an all-digital performance here worthy of the first Oscar nomination of it’s kind. Serkis really brings some personality to that character as he wore a motion suit on set and was really the one interacting with the other actors, and thankfully makes Caesar a living, breathing, fully developing character that becomes far more interesting than the nicely developed human characters. It’s almost realistic on a creepy level sometimes, as you can read all these emotions Serkis is bringing to the part so easily in Caesar’s eyes. The time spent developing his character both in the film and behind the scenes is time very well spent, as they’ve managed to mold one of the most startlingly engaging characters of the year. Certain things that happen to his character at the end of the movie will make you sympathize with him and his righteous cause, which is really remarkable considering some of the more villainous things that occur during the last 30 minutes. While I am very thankful Rise of the Planet of the Apes chooses to be a movie that spends a lot of time (especially in the second half) developing its ape characters, there are a few smaller missed opportunities with its human characters. We spend plenty of time with James Franco’s character in the first half and how his relationship grows with both his father and Caesar, but leaving the film I couldn’t help but be remiss that they didn’t take that the next step further and crafted a supremely interesting arc. There’s a major event in the middle of the film regarding Lithgow’s character that’s handled very callously, and it’s just unfortunate the filmmakers didn’t choose to indulge those ideas like the father/son relationship there and more into Franco’s desire to save his father. There are also a few characters that just don’t get enough time on screen. Freida Pinto’s character as Franco’s girlfriend/wife is hardly developed at all, and as I’ve said some of the character work at the Ape Sanctuary is a little spotty. Like I said the human stuff is by no means underdeveloped, just as a fan of character-rich stories; I was just left wanting more. Also, the latter half of the film that’s mainly ape exposition and thus the cause of the lack of human interaction is time well spent as you can already tell by the heaps of praise I’ve heaped on the movie’s effects and ape character development. One of the best things about the film is how engaging it ends up being despite how uninterested I originally was in the idea of a “Planet of the Apes” prequel. Thankfully there definitely appears to have been plenty of thought, effort, and creativity carefully poured into re-inventing this series for a modern age. Being dramatically different from the original series explanation for the beginning of the ape world, it almost feels like a Nolan-ized way of approaching the concept, and that recurring love and respect for the series carries it all the way to the fantastic, ominous ending that both wraps up this entry well but also leaves plenty of room for many more interesting sequels leading up to what occurs in “Planet of the Apes”. I had heard the comparison before, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes almost does for the “Apes” series what JJ Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek did for the Star Trek series. If you’ve seen any ads for the film, you’ve seen a majority of the last 30 minutes of the film with the movie’s huge Golden Gate Bridge action sequence. Being the only really big action beat in the film, it did feel a little summer blockbuster cliché to me at times, but it definitely helps that the same action sequence is so darn impressive. From a staging, geography, or just pure exhilarating excitement standpoint, it’s hard not to be thrilled by that massive battle. There are apes climbing the towers, crawling under the bridge, and flanking from all sides. It’s by far the most amazing ape-themed action sequence I never knew I wanted this summer. Also, Rise of the Planet of the Apes works very well as a thriller. There are a few tension-filled scenes involving Caesar interacting with humans for the first time that had me on the edge of my seat, and other times in the film I was genuinely terrified of what could happen next on the screen concerning the unpredictable and often brutally violent nature of the apes. Despite a few missed character opportunities with its human characters that are more than made up for with its more apish counterparts and a finale that feels a bit too summer-blockbuster for its own good, Rise of the Planet of the Apes still ends up an excellent way to end Summer 2011. What could have been a cheap cash-in on an ancient series ends up becoming one of the biggest surprises of my summer, and definitely one of my favorites of the year. It’s the film I didn’t know I needed or didn’t believe in a thousand years I’d love, but against all odds Rise of the Planet of the Apes works exceptionally well at delivering the thrills, the technical wows, and the exceptional story beats to bring Summer 2011 to a close on a very, very high note.
5 out of 5
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