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RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
(***½)
Reviewer:  Jim "JR" Rutkowski
Director:  Rupert Wyatt
Writers:
Amanda Silver, Scott Frank, Rick Jaffa, Mark Bomback
Starring:
James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto
Length:  110 minutes
Released:  080511
Rating:
PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence.
"Not only is it easily the best “Apes” film to come along since the first one, it is one of the better full-out blockbusters to come along in a while." 

Let me get this off my chest: I have always been a fan of the “Planet of the Apes” saga. As a little kid, I would watch both the five original feature films and the ersatz movies cobbled together from episodes of the short-lived TV spin-off series when they would appear and as a big kid would cheerfully repurchase them (even the silly animated series that also appeared for a brief period of time back in the day) each time they came out on a new home-video format. The only version I cannot tolerate is the generally derided 2001 Tim Burton “reimagining”--clearly his weakest work to date (he has subsequently made worse), marred by a sub-par script and a shaky ending. And yet, when it was announced that Fox was going back to the well again for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which promised to be a prequel to the 1968 original that would explain how everything came to be, my response veered somewhere between disinterest and dread. The lack of any big names either behind or in front of the camera suggested that it was just going to be a piece of product cranked out to exploit a familiar property in the style of the admittedly lackluster sequels to the original film (in which the apes traveled back to then-contemporary America in an effort to cut costs and the cast lists began to include the likes of Paul Williams behind the increasingly slapdash makeup) rather than a serious and sincere effort to restart the franchise. The notion of the film serving as an explanatory prologue to the beloved original also raised warning flags--laboriously explaining what never needed to be explained before seemed to be akin to a kid cutting open a drum to find out what made the noise and with much the same end result.

However, in a twist to rival the climax of the first “Planet of the Apes” in terms of sheer unanticipated surprise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” turns out to be more than just another stupid and soulless bit of hackwork made by people with nothing more on their minds than scoring a quick opening weekend bonanza due to brand familiarity. In going back to the franchise’s serious-minded roots and eschewing the increasingly silly and convoluted takes on the material found in the subsequent iterations, the people behind this film have created something that works both as a companion piece to the original and as an exciting and surprisingly thoughtful piece of contemporary pop cinema in its own right. Not only is it easily the best “Apes” film to come along since the first one, it is one of the better full-out blockbusters to come along in a while.

The films stars James Franco as Will Rodman, a scientist employed a big and vaguely evil biotech company who is working on creating a cure for Alzheimer’s, partly to bring countless millions of dollars in to his greedy boss (David Oyelowo) and partly in the hopes of saving his rapidly deteriorating father (John Lithgow) from the ravages of the disease. Of course, this means testing the drug on apes to check for any side effects and one ape, nicknamed Bright Eyes as the result of green flecks in the eyes brought on by the vaccine, demonstrates miraculous cognitive abilities, it seems as if Will has indeed found a cure. Alas, on the day of the big presentation before the company’s board of directors, Bright Eyes violently freaks out and tears up the joint before being gunned down and Will’s boss orders the program shut down and all the apes inoculated with the formula destroyed on the assumption that it was somehow contaminated. As it turns out, Bright Eyes was pregnant when she was taken into captivity and her violent behavior was borne out of protecting her newborn chimp. Will takes the chimp, soon to be named Caesar and over the next few years, he too begins to display astonishing levels of intelligence that suggest that the benefits of the vaccine were passed on from parent to child.

For a while, things go wonderfully--Caesar grows smarter and smarter, Dad begins to improve when Will surreptitiously gives him the vaccine and Will even begins a romance with sexy vet Caroline (Frieda Pinto)--but after a misunderstanding ends with the semi-justified beating of a jerk neighbor, Caesar is captured by Animal Control and taken from Will to be relocated to a “Primate Shelter” run by the seemingly well-intentioned John Landon (Brian Cox) and his jerk son Dodge (Tom Felton).

Inevitably, a shelter run by Hannibal Lecter and Draco Malfoy is no place for a self-respecting ape, especially not a super-smart one, and Caesar is forced to deal not only with the abusive conditions and Will’s apparent abandonment of him (though he is actually plowing through the mountains of red tape required to secure his release) but with the fact that he has never been around other apes in his entire life and that his fellow inmates want to bring the seemingly special newcomer down a peg or two. Over time, Caesar gradually begins to win the other apes over to his side and one night, he manages to break out of the facility and make it back to Will’s house in order to steal the vaccine in order to help boost their intelligence as well. With that accomplished, the apes stage a spectacular breakout and begin to rampage throughout San Francisco while getting revenge on all their key oppressors in the bargain. This leads to a violent and spectacularly staged standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge in which the smart apes continually outwit the humans and their attempts to bring them down while Will struggles to head things off before it is too late. What this means for the future of mankind is something I will leave for you to discover but if you have any familiarity with the series, you can probably surmise how things turn out in both the long and short runs.

Part of the problem with of the sequels, spin-offs and remakes of “Planet of the Apes” that have cropped up over the years is that the original did such a beautiful job of taking a premise that could have resulted in a supremely silly piece of junk and transformed it into a spectacularly entertaining film that was conceived and executed with a lot of style, wit and intelligence on display in all departments that to even attempt to equal, let alone improve upon it, would seem to be an epic exercise in futility. That film made so much money that many were compelled to indulge in such exercises over the subsequent decades and while most of them made money, they only served to tarnish the considerable accomplishments of the original by adding on so many increasingly ridiculous plot developments and unnecessary characters that many began to forget just how good that first one really was, both then and now.

For this one, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have chosen to pretend that none of the follow-ups ever happened and have instead come up with a surprisingly smart and strong screenplay that effectively works as both a companion piece to the original (complete with in-jokes and shout-out ranging from the subtle to the blatant) and as an engrossing story in its own right with plenty of twists, turns and excitement. Even more surprising, considering the fact that it is a summertime blockbuster, is the way that it provides both the requisite thrills and excitement along with more dramatic and thought-provoking elements. For example, while the subplot involving Will’s dad suffering from Alzheimer’s may seem like a particularly gauche method of inspiring cheap sentiment from the audience, it is actually a remarkably subtle method of underlining one of the central tragedies of Caesar in the sense that both he and Will’s father are two people who have spent nearly all their lives taking care of themselves until circumstances out of their control place them in situations in which they are now completely at the mercy of others for everything. To even attempt something vaguely serious-minded in a film of this type is enough of a surprise as is but to see it work as well as it does here is virtually a cause for celebration.

At the same time that it is working on a dramatic level, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is also succeeding mightily as a blockbuster entertainment in its own right. Although director Rupert Wyatt has never before attempted a film even close to the scale of this one (his biggest previous project was the smartly made indie prison drama “The Escapist”), he proves himself to be uncannily right for the material in the way that he deftly handles both the big action set-pieces and the quieter, character-driven moments. Although it takes a while for the film to build to the mayhem promised in the title, it more than delivers with a number of stunning sequences, the best of which is the frankly amazing climactic battle covering all areas of the Golden Gate Bridge. The elaborate CGI motion-control technology used to bring the apes to life is highly impressive and while the combination of those engineered replications of actual creatures with flesh-and-blood actors is not entirely seamless, it comes closer to pulling it off than any other attempt in recent memory that I can recall. While I have to admit to missing the elaborate practical makeup effects employed by the other films, I also realize that without the technology deployed here, there is simply no way that this film could have been produced as effectively as it is here.

And while the human performances are decent enough for the most part, the film is essentially stolen by Andy Serkis’ work as Caesar, for which he performed the role in the scenes with his fellow actors while wearing motion-capture equipment that allowed armies of visual effects wizards to convert what he did into what we see as Caesar. By now, Serkis is pretty much the acknowledged king of such things--he previously enacted the roles of Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy and the title part in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake--but just as the technology employed here outstrips those earlier efforts, so does his performance. As silly as it seems, Serkis gives us a turn that is as moving, sympathetic and convincing as any that I have seen so far this year and his efforts are what give the film the emotional core that sets it apart from so many other big-budget extravaganzas. I suspect that towards the end of the year, some will call for Serkis to get an Oscar nomination for supporting actor for what he does here and while that will probably never happen for the same reasons that you never see actors get nominated for their vocal contributions to animated films, I will say that if ever there was a performance that deserved such recognition, this is the one.

Whether you are an “Apes” fanatic of longtime standing or someone who has spent decades assiduously avoiding the films because the premise seemed too silly for your refined tastes, this is the kind of entertainment that stimulates both the brain and the eyes and leaves you exiting the theater feeling that this was not just another summer cash grab. That said, make sure that you hold off on leaving the theater until after the end credits in order to catch a highly important bit of information that manages to set up a sequel.


RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES © 2011 20th Century Fox
All Rights Reserved

Review © 2011 Alternate Reality, Inc.

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