Sunday, October 2, 2011

A Damned Impressive "Apes"

Some have characterized "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" as a franchise reboot, which isn't quite right. It makes numerous references to the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes," but functions as a prequel, presenting an alternative to the trio of 70s "Apes" films that explained how the primates came to power. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" borrows some ideas and characters, including the protagonist Caesar, leader of the ape revolutionaries, but is an entirely different animal altogether. Last pun. I promise.

In the new film, Caesar (Andy Sirkis) is the child of a female chimpanzee named Bright Eyes (Terry Notary), a test subject in the laboratories of a pharmaceutical company. The scientists, led by Will Rodman (James Franco), are developing a promising new drug to combat Alzheimers, which Will's father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from. Bright Eyes begins to exhibit signs of enhanced intelligence after exposure to the new drug, but an accident leads to her death and the scuttling of Will's research. To save the baby chimp from being put down, Will takes Caesar home, and it quickly becomes apparent that Caesar is developing an astonishing intelligence and self-awareness.

Over forty years of improvements in special effects allow the ape characters of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" to finally look like convincing real-world animals, while also utilizing human performances to make them memorable characters. The previous "Apes" films, including Tim Buton's famously disastrous 2001 remake, all used humans in elaborate makeup to portray chimpanzees, orangutans, and gorillas. Here, Caesar is brought to life through a combination of motion capture and animation, courtesy of WETA, who did such wonderful work on Peter Jackson's "King Kong." This allows the character to have much more physicality, swinging around overhead at the Rodman house or showing off climbing skills in the action sequences.

Those action sequences are going to be the major draw for some, as the film delivers on its promise to show the initial primate uprising that will eventually bring about the downfall of humanity. Full scale warfare between man and apes doesn't erupt, but we get a good taste of what that might look like a sequel or two down the line. However, as well-done and entertaining as the big set pieces are, it's the lead-up to them that's the most impressive part of the film. Caesar is a wonderful character, not only for the technical advancements that bring him to the screen, but in how he is developed. The arc of the story he is given is unusually thoughtful and well-considered.

In spite of being an obvious genre picture, the filmmakers examine a lot of heavy thematic material and pay a lot of attention to characters' interactions and relationships. Early scenes let us watch Caesar grow up with Will and Charles, forming emotional bonds and learning to communicate through sign language. After attacking a neighbor to protect the mentally deteriorating Charles, he's sent off to an ape sanctuary run by a villainous Brian Cox and Tom Felton, where he meets other apes for the first time and begins fomenting discontent against human society. The efforts of Andy Sirkis and WETA's animators create a subtle, striking performance, that allows Caesar to become a deeply compelling and memorable protagonist.

Sadly the visible human beings in the cast don't come off nearly as well, though I suppose this is by necessity, considering the premise. Several characters are notably flat, such as Will's boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyewolo), who is driven entirely by money, and the female lead Caroline (Frieda Pinto), who serves as one of the few voices of caution in the film. Lithgow and Franco certainly fill their roles well, but are firmly supporting characters, and probably should have had less screen time. I wanted more apes and more of the interactions among the apes, which would have helped set up the last act a little better.

Otherwise, it's hard to find much fault with the film. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is thoughtful, entertaining science-fiction, that easily stands on its own without any help from its predecessors. At the same time, fans will appreciate all the little homages and call backs to the older films, though the repurposing of a few lines of familiar dialogue is a little awkward. Most importantly, like "X-Men: First Class" earlier in the year, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has jump-started a franchise that many had written off. There's already chatter that director Rupert Wyatt has plans for a trilogy about Caeser.

I can't wait to see it.

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