You maniacs! You rebooted it up! Damn you. God damn you all to hell! Such was the sentiment from many when Tim Burton and Mark Wahlberg decided to reboot the classic film Planet of the Apes back in 2001, and they did so…weirdly. It wasn’t a bad film, and it was a box office hit, but it did not come close to recapturing the level of cultural significance of the original. There was also the kinda disturbing possible love story between Wahlberg’s human and one of the apes (granted, the ape was played by Helena Bonham Carter, so that is slightly understandable). Regardless, fans were left slightly indifferent to it which led studios to cancel a planned sequel, wait ten years, and reboot it as Rise of the Planet of the Apes. And that may have been one of the best decisions to come out of Hollywood in the last decade—although the bar is admittedly low.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good movie. In fact, it is a very good movie. And it does what many good movies does by challenging you and making you think. When people walk out of the theater they will be talking about what they saw, and continue the conversation long after. There are no real good guys or bad guys (with a few exceptions), and you are left to make your own assumptions and decide for yourself the morality of the plot. The apes are the real heroes, but it isn’t that cut and dry. It is a great example of what science fiction (true science fiction versus sci-fi fantasy) should be.
Real science fiction is—or at least should be—a genre that creates a plausible situation using scientific advancements. The best science fiction can then be turned into a parable of modern society. In the 50s, science fiction frequently dealt with the inequalities of society, specifically when it came to racism, but it did so in a way that could create discussion without being obvious about it. It infects fiction and conveys ideas that may otherwise not go over as well with people that aren’t willing to accept those ideas. While Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t have quite such a specific agenda or emotional resonance, but it is in the same vein.
There are two misconceptions that people will be faced with when they see this movie. The first is that this is an action movie–it is not. There is a fairly cool action sequence at the end, and there are a few action-y moments sprinkled in, but the action is just the climax to a dramatic, character driven film–and that character happens to be a chimp. The second misconception is that James Franco is the star. It is an understandable misconception, it even has his name on the top of the poster. The real star is Andy Serkis as the chimp Caesar. Well, Serkis and the multi-million dollar WETA special effects. Franco is almost a supporting character, especially by the end once the real plot has taken off.
By the way, although it is still early, it is not too early to begin throwing out Serkis’ name for Best Supporting Actor or even Best Actor. There is no chance he will win it because he is covered in CGI, plus his dialogue primarily consists of guttural sounds, but still, it is an impressive performance and far outshines James Franco. Which is actually kinda funny, but more a compliment to Serkis than a criticism of Franco.
Those Damn Dirty Apes
Like the saying goes, the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins in a lab, as Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) is looking for a cure to Alzheimer’s to help mankind, but more specifically to help his father Charles (John Lithgow). But as the experimentation has reached its zenith with animals and is ready to begin human testing, an accident sets the program back and all of the chimps are put to death—with the exception of one baby that Will doesn’t have the heart to kill, so he takes him home until he can find a new home for him. He also takes home samples of the drug to give to his father.
The drug works wonders on Charles and father and son grow attached to the chimp that they name Caesar (Serkis), whose growing intelligence is the result of the drug in his mother’s system.
Years pass, and after Will meets and falls for veterinarian Caroline Aranha (Frieda Pinto), they form an odd sort of family. But after an incident where he defends Charles, Caesar is taken by authorities to an ape sanctuary where he is treated poorly by the manager John Landon (Brian Cox) and lackey Steven Jacobs (Tom Felton). And as Caesar’s intelligence grows, he becomes less like an animal being caged and more like a kind-hearted person being ripped away from his family and falsely imprisoned by cruel guards.
Meanwhile at the lab, production of the drug has continued, a new strain has been created and Caesar’s life becomes one small piece of a bigger puzzle that leads to (spoilers) the apes rising up.
Screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa managed to put together a very tight, and very logical script, that is complimented by Director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) in just his second directorial outing. His first film won several awards, and Rise will likely earn him even more praise, so keep an eye on Wyatt.
But everything really comes back to the script, which sets the stage for some surprisingly emotional moments, even though the are somewhat deliberately manipulative. It is kinda refreshing to see a well plotted movie in a summer filled with robots judo chopping each other and guys with magic rings whining about how they have the most incredible and wonderful power in the universe but they’d rather cry about it. Not that I’m bitter or anything…
It is hard not to feel some sympathy for Caesar. He is a loving creature with a childlike innocence that is shattered. When faced with treatment that is common for his kind, it becomes unimaginably cruel for a being of his intelligence. Rather than just seeing a moment when a pet is taken from his owner, the scene instead is more akin to a child being taken from his family and no one but the family understanding why it is that big of a deal.
Serkis for the Win
Franco does a decent job, but it is Serkis that really sells the story. He is constantly covered in CGI, but the facial expressions are all his. The eyes are the most dominant means to convey the emotions Caesar is feeling, and that is all Serkis. There are even moments that border on heartbreaking, and more than a few audience members may even choke up, which is shocking when you think that much of it is digital. By comparison, Franco has a few solid scenes, but the bulk of the emotional content in the film are based on the character of Caesar.
Putting that aside, the story does an excellent job of never really casting anyone as the bad guy. There are no easily identifiable enemy soldiers wearing intimidating uniforms or evil robots. There are a couple of people that are a-holes, but there is no Cruella de Vil-like character that allows you to easily root against them. There are two characters that audiences will hate, but one is just a prick and the other is greedy–neither are evil. Do you cheer for the apes that will inevitably overtake humanity, or do you root for the humans that are unwittingly oppressing an intelligent group? The movie makes you think, and in that it succeeds well. People looking for a simple summer popcorn flick will probably be disappointed, and it might have made more sense to schedule this movie for later in the year, but that doesn’t affect the quality of the film.
Then there is the CGI. So much of this film is based around the emotions displayed by what is a computerized recreation of Andy Serkis, that you will need to buy into the effects to accept the movie. If you can’t, you will hate it. During the first few minutes, the CGI is obvious and hard to ignore. But as the film goes on, not only do you accept it, you stop noticing it. Perhaps it was just the first few scenes that were off, but by the halfway point when even more apes are introduced–and therefore more CGI is introduced–you probably won’t notice it. By the end, you will likely be impressed.
But even though there are a few moments where the CGI is obvious, the facial animation is incredible throughout. Again, a lot of that comes back to Serkis, but that wouldn’t be possible without the incredible work from WETA. Expect an Oscar nod on the technical side for it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is among the best sci-fi films of the year. It is somewhat amazing that a film as laden with CGI as Rise is can dredge up such emotional resonance, but it does. The film makes you feel uneasy at times, which is a compliment. It pushes the emotional consequences that the characters–both human and ape–face, and manipulates you into caring for a CGI created ape that looks an awful lot like Andy Serkis. The CGI also looks great with a few brief exceptions, but that wouldn’t have meant a thing if the script hadn’t managed to sell it, and it does. The plot is logical and everything makes sense, and the pacing moves well thanks to Wyatt, who is going to be a star in directing circles.
In terms of technical achievement in both practical filmmaking and special effects, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is among the best films of the summer. The acting is at worst good and at best amazing, the direction is solid, and the script is incredibly well thought out and logical. There is even a quick line or two that are easily overlooked, but can also immediately and satisfyingly set up a sequel—you’ll know it when you see it.
Fans of the original series of movies should be more than pleased with the reboot, and everyone else will be left with one of the best movies of the summer, and maybe one of the best films of the year.
(Rise of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours)
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