Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

2011, Rupert Wyatt

I have to say that, in general, I was more than a little astonished by the fact that they were making another Planet of the Apes movie. Let's face it, Tim Burton's 2001 "remake" was not great, taking a masterpiece of speculative SF and attempting to turn it into a big blockbuster franchise didn't work so well, and though they set up a sequel, thankfully it never came to fruition. The original series had five episodes to it, two derivative TV series (one animated, the other live action), and a number of comic books over the years. So the question then is this: where does Rise of the Planet of the Apes fit in? Is it part of the original series, or is it part of Tim Burton's series, or is it a fresh start?

Well, it's definitely not column B. I think the writers and director wanted to forget the Burton film existed. It's a little of column A, but mostly column C. The film paints a trajectory direct to the original film, even dropping some subtle notes in the background of Taylor and company's voyage into space in the background, and yet it doesn't fully jibe with the five films that comprise the original POTA series. In many respects it covers similar territory to the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, specifically the ape uprising against humanity, but it does so in a drastically different way, so either "Rise" replaces "Conquest" in the sequence, or it's a quasi-reboot of the series.

As I said, I was astonished that they (meaning studios/producers) would even bother to make another POTA film, but I was even more astonished to find that the film was more in keeping with the original tone of the series, balancing a light social commentary with SF themes and injecting an actual dramatic arc that the series never had before. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist searching for a cure for the Alzheimer's disease affecting his father (John Lithgow). The cure involves injections which help the brain grow new connective paths, and Rodman's experiments on chimpanzees had yielded remarkable results. Unfortunately, when his prime subject, a female ape named Bright Eyes, literally goes ape-shit, the project is cancelled. Rodman discovers that Bright Eyes' outburst that led to her termination was protective defensiveness, as unbeknown to any of her handlers, she had given birth to a baby boy. Rodman takes Cesar, the young orphaned ape home and cares for it, quickly discovering it has inherited the modified genes of its mother, and is hyper-intelligent, though still somewhat a slave to its primal instincts.

Cesar intervenes in a conflict between Will's father and a neighbour which gets him scuttled off to an ape sanctuary (Lithgow's patriarch role is a heartbreaking one in the film, and his relationship with both Will and Cesar is exceptionally well portrayed). Amongst his kind for the first time, but routinely tormented by humans, Cesar learns the cruelty of man and the dire conditions of his simian brethren. Naturally the ape named Cesar will lead them to revolution. There's a lot more that goes on between these major story beats, but that is the general breakdown, and it's fantastic, especially considering the fact that it's Cesar, a digital creation performed by Andy Serkis, that is the lead of the film, not Franco's Rodman. By the third act, in fact, Rodman's become somewhat irrelevant to the story and his participation in the films climax is virtually unnecessary.

The second act of Rise takes place largely inside the Ape conservatory, playing out like a heady prison drama more than science fiction or a summer action movie, as Cesar adapts to life on the "inside", establishes his dominance over the alpha male, and befriends an orangutan who can communicate with him in sign language. As intriguing as Cesar's origins and development were in the first act, carried largely by Franco and Lithgow, it's the second act which gives over to Serkis' performance and the apes, a daring move that leaves the film largely dialogue-free for much of its run though never actually requiring, a feat rivaled only by WALL-E.

Rise is impressive, a wonderfully intelligent piece of entertainment that is refreshingly old-fashioned in it's style of storytelling, but undoubtedly modern in its execution. The CGI apes, which is to say all of them, are quite remarkable, though they trigger a slight uncanny valley effect from time to time. The interaction between the cgi characters and the real world setting are some of the best executed I've seen, and it would seem the film spent it's money on making these characters as believable as possible instead of huge action sequences, of which this film only contains one, and it's a spectacular smoke-laden sequence taking place on the Golden Gate Bridge as a massive conclave of apes take on the San Francisco Police Department.

As a big fan of the POTA series, I can honestly say that this is the best of the films since the original. It's success has been the surprise of the summer, but it can only mean a follow-up is in order. I just hope they're not forced to go the "blockbuster" route for the sequel. These films work best on a smaller scale.

(NB* check out IGN's neat-o "Cheat Sheet" on the series)