Sunday, August 7, 2011

Go Ape: RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES


The main character of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a combination reboot / remake / prequel of the kind increasingly common to moribund franchises these days, is a startlingly well-drawn, patiently developed and deeply sympathetic creation. He’s an incredibly talented youngster who grows exponentially in intelligence and capacity as he ages. One unfortunate day, he attacks a neighbor while defending a member of his surrogate family and is locked away in a prison-like environment. There, he discovers his own kind and begins to plot an escape. His name is Caesar and he is a chimpanzee.

All of his character development is done with a handful of sign language symbols sparsely translated, but otherwise through entirely wordless passages in which body language and small shifts of expression – it’s all in the eyes – tell more than you need to know about his emotional state. Even more impressive than just the mere fact that an expensive studio production would willingly turn over so much time to quiet and nuance is that Caesar is a computer-generated character, quite possibly the most convincing one yet. He’s performed via motion capture by Andy Serkis, the same digitally-assisted chameleon who breathed life into the pixels of Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson’s King Kong. Not only is Caesar convincing, but he captured my emotions as well. I had a rooting interest in this character and was on the edge of my seat waiting to see what he would learn, what he would decide to do next.

When Caesar arrives amongst other primates, very convincing effects work all, in an animal control prison lorded over by an inattentive Brian Cox and a sneering Tom Felton, encounters with chimps, orangutans, and gorillas are similarly convincing, thrilling, and suspenseful. The hierarchies of this little prison society are made startlingly clear in what seem like lengthy sequences in which the only sounds are growls, snorts, and various ape vocalizations. By the time the simian inmates form a makeshift army – after some convoluted sci-fi business about enhanced intelligence – their strategy meetings are similarly thrillingly clear despite the lack of speaking. It’s all in the eyes, which in these cases are most definitely windows to souls.

If this movie were mostly just apes, this review would be on-track to be a nearly unqualified rave. As it is, the film has lots of human stuff dragging down the level of quality. Perhaps that’s because, unlike for the apes, writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are required to write speaking role for the humans. There is so much intelligence, thought, and humanity in the wordless ape roles, that it’s a shame that the movie lacks human intelligence. Oh, they all play their parts just fine but the dialogue is really clunky and the plot requires some humans to make Very Bad Decisions for the sake of moving things along. The lead human is scientist James Franco who is close to a breakthrough in his work for a cure to Alzheimer’s. We see that he likes to take his work home with him when we learn that his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from said disease. When Franco’s work testing his cure on chimps is shut down by his Big Pharma boss (David Oyelowo), he saves a baby chimp from being put down and brings him home too. That would be Caesar. It’s a good thing that Franco woos a pretty veterinarian (Freida Pinto) who can keep a secret.

The slick production just blasts forward, rocketing upwards at a terrific pace, escalating all the while. Director Rupert Wyatt, in his first big studio effort, has a great hand at keeping the effects perfectly utilized. He neither leans on them, nor tries to hide them. He knows he has a good thing going and makes great use of the skilled work of thousands of animators and dozens of mo-cap performers. The spectacle is truly spectacular, made all the more so by the simple fact that I cared about what was happening on the screen. Not since 1968’s Planet of the Apes found astronaut Charlton Heston falling through time and space and landing on a future Earth ruled by the apes, has a Planet of the Apes film been so fully satisfying.

Rise flips the frightening central scenario. Instead of a man being oppressed by apes, this film shows apes being oppressed by men. It’s a terrifying what if scenario both ways. What if apes got tired of being treated as second-class species? Though Rise sees unwilling to maintain the same commentary on the cauldron of societal ills that informed the sensibilities of the original films, there is still a potent sense of wrong in the treatment of these animals, and a potent terror in their eventual strike back. It’s all the more terrifying for seeming justified. Caesar is a charismatic character who grows into a charismatic leader. The great success of the film is not only the way it so brilliantly builds this character, but also in the way it has an audience rooting for the defeat of mankind, rooting for the rise of the Planet of the Apes. The film doesn’t quite get there, concluding by merely leaving tantalizing threads for future sequels. It’s funny that the franchise, which started with Heston’s angst at the destruction of humanity, has come full circle to the point where an audience cheers it on. It’s excitingly transgressive. When a character in this new film shouts “Get your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!” The film’s thrilling, hugely entertaining and disturbing answer is “No.” 

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