Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

August 11, 2011 § Leave a comment

Freida Pinto, James Franco and modern day Lon Chaney Andy Serkis filming 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'

Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver

Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Starring Andy Serkis, James Franco, Tom Felton, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo, Brian Cox and Freida Pinto

The Planet of the Apes series has a strange place in pop culture. I doubt most modern day film audience members have seen the original movies or would willingly sit through them. Nobody much talks about the last attempt at a series reboot with Tim Burton’s simply titled ‘Planet of the Apes’ starring Mark Wahlberg and a whole bunch of famous actors in state of the art ape make up that honestly wasn’t exactly light years ahead of the original 1960’s designs.

The original films were campy allegories about racism and what it means to be an animal- an inversion of humanity’s control over the planet for all these years and an examination of just what separates man from so called beast. We’re only a few genetic points removed from apes and chimpanzees. Another couple of chromosomal alterations and who knows how similar we’d be to one another. The films are cheesy by today’s standards; with their sets clearly built on Hollywood back lots, utilizing 1960’s technology and aesthetics. Even for that era, the primate costumes were very impressive, if not entirely convincing with the faces not moving too much. The make up work in the 2001 remake was light years beyond what was doable in the 1960’s. Even so, the 2001 remake remained fairly loyal to the original’s designs.

This prequel sets the stage in a whole new and less ambitious way. We see humanity as it exists today. A scientist played by James Franco has created a compound he calls AZT 112, which reverses the degenerative effects of Alzheimer’s. Naturally the drug is tested on chimps, who respond to the synapse connection properties by boosting their ability to communicate effectively with humans, solve basic puzzles and play games. The first trial goes horribly wrong, the project is shut down and all is lost for the good doctor, except for a single spared newborn chimp, who Franco reluctantly steals from the lab to spare his life. The chimp is lovingly named Caesar by the doctor’s father, played by John Lithgow as a professional musician who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Lithgow is charming and effectively sad as the Alzheimer suffering elder.

Franco’s doctor realizes that the AZT drug was passed to the new baby chimp through his mother’s DNA. The original Days turn into weeks, weeks into months and so on until the chimp is living with Franco’s doctor as a surrogate son and lifelong test subject. Caesar can sign effectively and fluently, he can play chess, he has compassion and loyalty towards his human family members and is basically a well-behaved little child. Franco starts giving AZT to his father, with mixed results, the returns of the drug diminishing in time. Caesar, on the other hand, grows more intelligent each day, his I.Q. doubling every year.

Franco begins dating a veterinarian played by Freida Pinto in a thankless role as Franco’s conscience and our eye candy. Her character gets zero development and mostly stands around in the background or offers kind words to our conflicted human protagonist.

Years pass and Caesar grows restless and curious about the outside world, locked away in the confines of the home Franco shares with his elderly father. They have a snooty, annoying neighbor who is apparently around for comic relief, always finding excuses to get cartoonishly angry with the Alzheimer’s suffering father. One day Lithgow goes too far, managing to total the neighbor’s new Mustang in a rather ludicrous, conveniently over the top example of Alzheimer’s. Caesar sees the neighbor getting physical with Lithgow and goes, well, a little ape shit in Lithgow’s defense. The ape is taken to the San Bruno ape reserve (or something like that) where he’s imprisoned in what initially looks like a halfway decent home.

As with all film orphanages, for humans or otherwise, the pleasant and well run looking facility is anything but. After Franco reluctantly leaves Caesar in the car of original Hannibal Lecter Brian Cox, sporting a rather obvious dye job, Caesar immediately experiences cruelty at the hands of man. Specifically, a lazy, stupid and violent caretaker played by Tom Felton, aka Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter. Sadly, Felton is every bit cartoonishly villainous and scenery chewing as he is in the Potter films, over enunciating and making exaggerated facial expressions as if he’s in a stage production. Felton gets the honor of reconstituting the Ape series’ most famous line in a scene of outlandish campiness. I’m loathe to admit it, but under the circumstances, the line feels forced, making the film all too self-conscious of the weight of its own campy pop-culture history.

The hyper-intelligent Caesar learns the cruelty of man and the dumbness of normal primates. He retreats into himself, becoming very angry and bitter towards all humans while experiencing a spiritual awakening of sorts on his loyalty to his fellow primate, regardless of the level of their intelligence. Through a convoluted and highly unlikely series of events, Caesar breaks out of the facility, travels only god knows how far across the bay area by foot, steals the AZT and exposes the other caged primates to a gaseous, airborne version of the drug. Very quickly he develops an army of about 20 or 30 primates, ready to do his bidding.
The finale is a race across the bay area, culminating on a ludicrous stand off on the Golden Gate bridge between a bunch of primates and about 20 heavily armed police officers. Despite these unfair odds, guess who rues the day.

The film ends with a ‘gotchya’ moment that hints at what’s to come (including what I think is a subtle reference towards HIV/AIDS vs. SIDS, the primate version of the disease) , but the stakes remain quite low when the closing credits begin to role and we’re left to wonder how a platoon of escaped primates who can play chess and use sign language grow in numbers to take over the planet.

Andy Serkis steals the show in his mo-cap performance as Caesar. It’s not clear how much of it is him and how much of it is post-production CGI, but the either way the results are terrific. He moves fluidly and his expressions tell great tales of the growing sense of disillusion, anger, distrust and innocence lost in his Caesar. There are rumors of Serkis garnering a best actor nod or at least a special Oscar for the work and I agree that it should be recognized, but how do we separate the actor from the effects team?

As the human lead, Franco is surprisingly likeable and effective in his emoting. Some people accuse the actor of being on autopilot, but I’m not sure what more could be asked from his performance as the surrogate father to Caesar.

Director Rupert Wyatt seemingly came out of nowhere, with just one low budget film to his credit called The Escapist, also starring Brian Cox. For a first time big budget project, I’d say Wyatt knocks Rise of the Planet of the Apes out of the park, with interesting visuals, a controlled pace to the story and character development in favor of flashy action sequences.

None of the Apes films have ever been or ever will be brilliant, but some are excellent examples of intelligent science fiction and Rise is no different. I would call it a worthy re-boot of the franchise and deserved of a sequel to its prequel story. I for one, am ready to revisit the story of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

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