Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir: Rupert Wyatt, 2011. Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow. Science-Fiction.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
When the legacy of a film that you a feel deep affection for is messed with the knee-jerk reaction can be negative; every once in a while a remake can be respected (Dawn of the Dead) or a sequel can outdo the original (The Road Warrior, Aliens) but most sequels and remakes are strictly quick buck affairs. So there’s no point in getting snotty about Rise of the Planet of the Apes; it’s a big, fun, flawed but intelligent reimagining of the series. It’s the best Apes flick since the original film, Planet of the Apes in 1968, one of my all-time favorite movies. The legacy has already been contaminated; the quality of the four sequels (Beneath…, Escape from…, Conquest of…, and Battle for…) vary in quality. Both the live action and animated television series, based on the film, are amazingly boring. And Tim Burton’s ill-conceived remake was a dud. Frankly, fans of Pierre Boulle’s original book have the most to complain about as the ‘68 version’s screenwriters, Rod Serling and Michael Wilson, hit the bull’s-eye, but completely abandoned much of the novel’s concept. The rebooting of a stale series has done wonders in recent years for both Batman and James Bond; rebooting as opposed to remaking looks to be the new way to find new creative angles.
 
The first act of Rise is almost a boy-and-his-dog story, or a scientist-and-his-genetically-intelligent-chimp story. Will Rodman (James Franco), a brilliant geneticist, inspired by his Alzheimer-stricken father, Charles (John Lithgow), works to find a cure while working for one of those evil medical companies. When things go wrong, the apes are slaughtered, but Will brings home one of the ape’s newborn babies, whom he names Caesar (the first of many name references to the original films). He and his dad and then his zoologist girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto), are happily raising their extremely intelligent young ape in picturesque San Francisco and other then the scientific mumbo-jumbo mixed in this could be an above average family flick. But then things go wrong; as Caesar grows into maturity he starts to wonder who he is, and after protecting Charles from a brute neighbor, he is sent off to a sort of stray ape kennel (doesn’t every city have one?). It’s an old, rusty animal shelter and here the flick really lights up and becomes a classic prison tale.
 
The sleazy and abusive monkey jail is run by Landon (a wasted Brian Cox) and his overacting creep son Dodge (of course in the original flick Dodge and Landon were the names of Charlton Heston’s astronaut cohorts). Here Caesar must survive the abuse of his new captors as well as his fellow apes who he has never been exposed to; his anguish in his new environment is truly heartbreaking. He ends up befriending an angry Gorilla and, like Caesar, a sign language-talking orangutan (named Maurice, after Maurice Evans who played the orangutan Dr Zaius in the original), while trying to adapt to his new life. Eventually he becomes the leader of the apes, teaching them collaboration, while planning their escape. In a rather far-fetched plot twist he escapes, goes home, and grabs some of that smart medicine and gasses his ape pals so they can be on closer intellectual ground. This leads to their breakout where they team up with zoo apes and rescued lab apes; they wreak havoc on the streets of San Fran and have a showdown with the cops over the Golden Gate Bridge, before retreating to the safety of California’s redwood trees in Muir Woods.
 
That first act of the movie has definite allusions to the original Apes: a sympathetic scientific couple trying to protect an intelligent creature in a world that considers him a beast. But interestingly once the movie hits the ape jail it jumps up three flicks to Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, where the talking ape Caesar leads his fellow suppressed apes in a revolution against man (I mean, if you consider taking over a Century City mall revolutionary).
 
Besides the name references, there are repeated lines from the old series, “It’s a mad house,” “damn dirty apes,” and “no!”

A real crowd pleaser is when Caesar puts together a model of The Statue of Liberty (the last image of the first film). But most importantly there’s an ultra-minor side story, told through news reports of a lost space mission called Icarus, which is the name of the spaceship that took the humans to the ape-ruled Earth of the future in the original flick. The experimental science that causes the apes to get intelligence and speech also works as a deadly flu on humans; the film ends with the epidemic slowly creeping over the globe. Perfect set-ups for future flicks. 
 
Normally I prefer actual three dimensions to computer-created tricks. The rockets made of models in 2001 or Star Wars are much more believable to me than the high-tech space crafts in today’s movies. Usually I would prefer a guy in a monkey mask to artificially created ones. But, strangely, I grew to accept the CGI character of Caesar, created with motion capture as played by Andy Serkis, the most famous motion capture actor ever, having played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings flicks and an even bigger monkey in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. If credit goes to him and not some computer programmer then I must declare he delivers with a powerful performance. Caesar is the most complicated and artfully emotionally depth-filled character in the movie. The artificial ape seems real while the humans feel like CGI creatures created in a screenwriter’s lab.
 
Rise works hard to explain Rodman’s motivations, but they don’t always add up. Unfortunately his character makes a number of bonehead moves and has some lame moments (including expecting Caesar to want to come home with him after becoming king of the apes). We know that the vaccine has made Caesar super bright (and apparently given him super strength and jumping ability), but his own strategic steps are not always earned; he seems too often able to anticipate his foes’ plans based on knowledge he was never privy to. One random car ride to Rodman’s labs and he remembers exactly where it is later and seems to know exactly what’s going on in there—again, unearned. But that qualm aside the picture delivers on all counts as a fun action flick, as an emotional-boy-and-his-monkey picture, and as a prison character study. Rise is one of the most satisfying summer tent pole flicks ever and certainly one of the few flicks where I will welcome a sequel; if they can be just as clever on the next go-around, one day Roddy McDowall will be just but a foggy memory for me.

____________________

Rise of the Planet of the Apes was nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.
Posted by:
Sean Sweeney
Feb 8, 2012 6:09pm
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