Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Either by fluke, mere happenstance, a blessed and unusual bit of mainstream franchise artistry, or a bar set very low by the middling Tim Burton remake that bombarded movie screens a decade ago, the prequel, reboot franchise starter Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing, and fun piece of pop filmmaking.  Whatever the reasoning the film is a hoot to watch-- fast and to the point.  Rupert Wyatt, a novice to blockbuster filmmaking, directs the ape soap opera with a spark and fluidity that dusts off the cobwebs of the venerable 43-year-old franchise, that it hardly matters if one's a devoted and lustful fanboy of the series or not.  With a clear eye for the exposition that's required for more installments (that more often than not is more than tedious to watch in many summertime movies with similar missions), and also of the nuts and bolts of action and visual effects that summer audiences need, Wyatt, already on scope and pace seems primed to one day join the ranks of the Camerons and Nolans of the modern cinema world.  That may seem like absurd praise, but the film looks grand and flows spectacularly well.  The only weakness, one senses, comes directly from the script-- the story is mapped out well before anything really happens, and while silly sometimes, refreshingly there is kind of one to begin with. But it's not the selling point-- it's the visual spectacle, the joyously constructed action sequences, and the rare and unique charms of an ape named Caesar.

Set in modern day San Francisco, we first meet a young scientist named Will (James Franco) whose trying to save the world and everyone's brain with a formula that could hopefully cure most fatal diseases.  It's really an act of desperation, as his father (John Lithgow) is losing his to Alzheimer's.  His constant testing on chimps and stop and go successes leave him in the arms of a newborn ape that he begrudgingly takes into his care.  But this ape is special-- he's smart and quick and has the process to learn faster than most humans, thanks to the scientific something something lodged into his body from birth.  Over time (a very short period of time), the young chimp, now named Caesar and Will form a bond and chemistry more like father and son, than scientist and lab rat, and for a time in the beginning of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there's a feeling of sci\fi monster yarn meets Project Nim-like commentary on child rearing going on, but as the movie goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Will's plight is of little consequence and when the film finally decides to nearly focus on it's most interesting and compelling aspect-- the monkey of course-- it only gets better.

The humans in the story are all pretty much non-sequiturs, from Franco to his father to his feather-deep relationship to a supporting vet (played by Frieda Pinto.)  All the other human characters represents the species at their very worst-- greedy, manipulative, cowardly, violent and in the case of Tom Felton (he played Draco Malfoy for the past decade in the Harry Potter movies), who plays a guard with a penchant for tasers for a gorilla confine, outright sociopathic.  For Caesar is the heart and soul and spark of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and a small saving grace in a summer movie season seemingly bereft of grand characters.  Graceful, poised, agile, and surprisingly humane-- the ape that would go one to several more adventures later in the series is given a great service.  born in captivity, and raised by humans, only later to be shafted when his innate, instinctual primate genes kick in.  Sent to a chimp facility that's more like a prison than anything else, Caesar's feelings of abandonment, anger, rage and sadness grow until finally it bellows into a rousing apes in revolt, "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take it anymore," action ballet.  That Caesar is such an expressive and engrossing character relates to the wizards at the Weta Workshop, the same team that rendered both Middle Earth and Pandora to such pristine and much awarded perfection, deserve a great deal of credit for the wonderful effects, as does the great motion capture performance delivered by the team's reigning star, Andy Serkis, he of Gollum and Kong fame.

For through Serkis' performance, one that's hard to label but easy to admire, we get every stage of Caesar's young life, and the bravura, symbiotic pleasures of watching the cuddly young ape turned brave and stolid warrior feels almost Dickensian.  For if anything of depth of substance is in the Rise of the Planet of the Apes (and possibly there isn't; there's doesn't have to be) comes from the primate's corner, and the power of watching a superbly intelligent and extremely dangerous leader rise in what would lead to feels achingly apt.  For pure popcorn thrills the best moment comes near the end of the feature with a great, lengthy and thoroughly amusing battle royale atop the Golden Gate Bridge and one would be hard-pressed not to root for those stinkin' apes.  Perhaps that's the oddball joy of the film in that a villain becomes a hero, and the ultimate rooting source-- we the audience want the Planet of the Apes, not the planet of the greedy silly humans.

Whatever chunkiness of the script never fully distorts the great grade-B pleasures and the epic ape revolt.  Embrace the silly, forget the science and rise to one of the best surprises of the year thus far.  B

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