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Ape Management Part 7: Josh reviews Rise of the Planet of the Apes!

August 10th, 2011
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When I first started to read about the possibility of a new Planet of the Apes film, a few years back, I thought the central concept was at once incredibly gutsy and yet at the same time quite boringly predictable.

The idea of remaking not the first Planet of the Apes (the way Tim Burton catastrophically attempted to do, ten years ago), but rather the FOURTH one — re-telling the story of Caesar and his ape revolution — seemed to me to be a rather gloriously insane notion.  Who would be interested in such an “inside baseball” approach (exploring this obscure piece of Apes lore, from Battle for the Planet of the Apes, that I suspected few had ever heard of)?

On the other hand, since Hollywood seems insistent on churning out prequel after prequel these days, it also seemed very boringly of-the-moment to do a Planet of the Apes “Begins” story.  Urgh, when separated from the loopy time-traveling fun of the circular narrative of the original Planet of the Apes films of the ’70s, what was the point?  Did we really need yet another prequel explaining how a beloved fantasy world came to be?

Well, my friends, I am extraordinarily pleased to report that director Rupert Wyatt, along with writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, have managed to create a new Planet of the Apes film that is the best of both worlds.  Set in the present day, the film succeeds as a totally accessible, stand-alone piece of speculative fiction that can be enjoyed by anyone, even if you’ve never seen a minute of any other Planet of the Apes film.  But for those of us die-hard Apes fans, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a wonderfully engaging, clever re-imagining of the series, and one that fits shockingly well into the continuity of the original 1968 film.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant young scientist whose passion to create a drug that can repair deficient brain cells is based on his desperate need to help his father (played by John Lithgow), who is suffering from Alzheimer’s.  As the film opens, Will believes that he is on the cusp of incredible success, because one of his ape test subjects has demonstrated enormous leaps in mental cognition after taking Will’s drug.  But things quickly turn sour, and Will’s project is shuttered.  His apes are put down, but one of Will’s co-workers is able to save one baby ape.  When Will discovers the remarkable intelligence possessed by this ape, who he names Caesar, he begins to suspect that maybe his drug was a success after all.  But his noble efforts to cure a terrible disease might have catastrophic consequences for the entire planet.

In tone, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is closest to the original Planet of the Apes. While the sequels (and Tim Burton’s re-make) ventured more into pulpy action/adventure territory, the original Planet of the Apes was a drama, first and foremost.  It was a cautionary tale, a sci-fi story designed to make pointed comments on the state of our society at the time.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is cut from the same cloth.  This is not an action film, and anyone going in thinking it will be is going to be sadly disappointed.  Oh yes, there is extraordinary mayhem when the apes finally do rise up, and the action sequence that caps the film is well worth waiting for.  But that sequence is just the cherry on top of the film, rather than the point of the whole enterprise.  This is a film with some sharp commentary to be had about our society today, and the dangerous dark side that lies so perilously close to our world of technological wonders.  I really enjoy that aspect of this film.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a slow burn of a story.  The film takes its sweet time to get where it’s going, but I never really minded that, because I was so engrossed in the story as it was unfolding.  The human cast is strong — John Lithgow, in particular, is great, as is Brian Cox (who pops up in the film’s second half) — though not spectacular.  James Franco and Freida Pinto (who plays Will’s girlfriend, Caroline) are engaging enough to carry the story along, though neither does particularly compelling work.

But right from the beginning, the CGI work that brought Caesar (and, later, all the other apes in the film) to life is absolutely astounding.  Every single ape in the film was created through CGI.  But they weren’t created from scratch — actors in motion-capture suits played every ape characters.  Andy Serkis, who did such incredible mo-cap work to play Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films (and later King Kong in Peter Jackson’s version), plays Caesar, and the incredible artists at Weta Workshop (Peter Jackson’s New Zealand based special effects house that did all of the effects for the Lord of the Rings) built a fully CGI character on top of Mr. Serkis’ performance.  The result is jaw-droppingly stunning.  Caesar is photo-realistically convincing, but even more important than that, the character has an emotional truth and a soulfulness that is the result of the magical, inspired work done in concert by Mr. Serkis and by the folks at Weta.

At about the film’s half-way point, the human characters (even Will, the lead) begin to drop out of the story, and it becomes clear that this movie isn’t really about Will, it’s about Caesar.  (The true crux of the film doesn’t really begin until Ceasar finds himself forcibly separated from Will, and taken to a brutally unpleasant shelter where he is put in cages along with the rest of the fierce, un-intelligent apes.  Caesar’s response to this incarceration is, one quickly realizes, the backbone of the story being told.)  I didn’t find myself missing the human characters at all.  I was completely enraptured by Caesar and the other apes.  Though large swaths of the movie fly by with very little dialogue, one can totally follow everything that’s going on in Caesar’s head, and that of the other apes, because of the magnificent mo-cap performances by Mr. Serkis and his fellow actors, and the astounding visual effects work.  These apes seem REAL.  It’s really quite astounding.

Caesar’s experiences in the animal shelter are pretty heartbreaking, an emotion I did not expect to feel when watching a Planet of the Apes movie!  It’s powerful stuff, and it makes the visceral release of the eventual ape-mayhem at the end of the film feel even more cathartic.  Hoo boy there’s some crazy stuff at the end of the film, and it’s fun and exciting while also being tragic and sad.  That’s a really, really tough tonal line to walk, and the filmmakers handle that with great success.

The film has some very clever nods to the original Planet of the Apes.  Rise opens with a sequence of hunters capturing apes in the wild (apes who will soon find themselves being test subjects in Will’s lab).  It’s an intense way to start the film, but true Planet of the Apes fans will immediately recognize the parallel with the sequence in the original Planet of the Apes, in which we saw apes hunting humans just as we now watch humans hunting apes.  Yes, there is a shot of the statue of liberty at one point in the film, and I really smiled at Will’s nickname for his favorite ape test subject.  So clever.  We do hear a character say the famous line “Get your stinking paws off me…” but that actually was one of the only moments in the film that I really disliked.  It was too on-the-nose and awkward.

Interestingly, while Rise of the Planet of the Apes ignores the time-traveling story of the original Apes sequels, it is carefully designed to fit perfectly into the continuity of the original film.  The seeds of both the apes’ ascendance as well as mankind’s downfall are both cleverly seeded throughout the film.  (Stick around after the credits start to roll, to see something implicit in the film’s story made quite explicit.)  And, yes, (SMALL SPOILER ALERT!), we do see the Icarus!! I really loved that.

There are a few moments of coincidence or convenience in the film’s narrative that I take issue with.  There’s a point at which Caesar sneaks out of the animal shelter and manages to not only find his way back through the city to Will’s home, but also to discover exactly a key item that plays a critical role in the plot, that I thought was a little ridiculous, even for a film about a hyper-intelligent ape.  Too convenient, and too easy.  I also thought the very last scene of the film was a bit weird.  (Some small SPOILERS ahead, my friends, so beware.)  I was waiting for a confrontation between Will and Caesar, after Will sees Caesar’s apes wreaking havoc.  I was curious to see whether we’d see Will ultimately understanding or condemning the violence.  But the film curiously sidesteps that issue, with a cuddly scene in which Will is happy to see Caesar climbing a tree, at home with other apes.  Hah?  What about all the carnage we’d just watched?  I was a bit bummed to see the film pull that final punch a bit (whereas the original Battle for the Planet of the Apes absolutely did not).

But these small issues did not in any way impact my enjoyment of the film.  What fun to finally see another really serious, really GOOD Planet of the Apes film!  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (urgh, no matter how much I like this film, that is still a stupid title — is Rise not the most over-used, meaningless phrase in movie titles these days??) works as a stand-alone film, but when the film ends there is still clearly a huge amount of story remaining to be told.  I hope we get to return to this particular incarnation of the Planet of the Apes, and soon!

Here are my previous Planet of the Apes reviews: Planet of the Apes (1967), Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1969), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (1972), Battle for the Planet of the Apes (1973), Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes (2001).

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