Sunday, June 10, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Director:  Rupert Wyatt

Reviewed: 10 June 2012

jamesintexas rating--*** (4 Stars = Highest Rating)

Full disclosure: I have not seen the original Planet of the Apes films yet except for the Tim Burton disaster from a few years ago which I did not like.

Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a solidly built action thriller with echoes of the more challenging work that it could have been.  At times, the parallels to Frankenstein are obvious: one man's hubris drives him to play God and attempt to redirect the course of life with dire, unintended consequences.  However, in this film, the hubris is tied to Will Rodman's (James Franco) urgent desire to reverse his father Charles's (John Lithgow) Alzheimer's disease, a touch that humanizes him and makes us root for him.  When an experiment goes awry and apes react violently when exposed to a particular drug in development to cure that horrible disesase, Franco spirits away the day-old Caesar from the lab and keeps him at his home with his father.  Caesar is swaddled in blankets, held and loved, and grows with the remnants of the drug playing out in his system, rendering him hyper-intelligent.  Caesar's success leads Will to push the limits and start human trials with his father using the drug, effectively ridding him of his disease.  As the story progresses, Caesar begins exploring his world and pushing the limits of his reality: "Am I a pet?" he signs to Will at one moment, as sign language becomes one way that humans and apes and other apes communicate in this film.  A trip to the forests north of San Francisco offers Caesar a glimpse of an idyllic natural environment, and shots of him scaling the Redwood trees of Muir National Park, looking out over the skyline of San Francisco communicate his longing and his dichotomous nature as both man and ape.  A violent act prompted by a neighbor's bullying of Charles provokes a vicious outburst from Caesar, leading to him being institutionalized and exposed to other primates, and sows the seeds of the burgeoning revolution.  Caesar's intelligence and refusal to settle for a life of captivity occupies the second half of the film as he builds an army of his brothers and sisters and looks to escape.

This film is really, really well-constructed and well-shot.  Overhead shots of apes spreading out over the city are well-done, and one particular sequence in the suburban streets is striking for the rain of leaves and movement indicated above in the canopy of trees while mostly hidden apes begin an assault.  Yes, the CGI dominates and takes me out of the movie at times, but the swirling cinematography and the sheer number of moving parts on the screen in specific moments is breathtaking.  The standout performance here has to be Andy Serkis as Caesar who makes that character even more indelible than King Kong or Gollum, as he uses gestures and body language to communicate Caesar's complex reactions to his world.  Serkis is an actor of great depth, whether using a computer to aid him or not, and I wonder if there isn't a way to reward him for his brilliant performances with an acting Oscar or honorary Oscar.  I don't believe this film would have any of the emotional core without Serkis as Caesar.

Wyatt's decision to root the film in Africa with violent kidnapping of the apes as well as to contrast the jungle of the opening shots with the shiny sterility of the lab works to contrast the two environments, and Caesar might be one of the most interesting characters in film this year as he rebels against his captors.  Franco is fine until he kind of isn't, and Freida Pinto as his veterinarian girlfriend seems to have very little to do besides stand there.  A final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge skews initially into G.I. Joe television show logic (So many shots fired; no one gets hit!), but both sides do inflict mortal damage on each other, and I like how the fog was used to mask ape movements over and under the bridge.  Of course, the showdown would occur there.  It seems like Wyatt's script falters at the end unsure of how dark to take the story, and instead of a more bold ending, the film ends with a whimper.  And then the post-credits sequence takes over and offers a Contagion-style set-up for the sequels.

There are some editing misfires, some vast leaps of logic (How does Caesar remain hidden for that long in a suburban house without someone seeing him?), and some wooden chemistry between Pinto and Franco.  Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) shows up as a ridiculously evil character to push the plot along.  A neighbor exists only to be enormously rude and mean.  A billionaire C.E.O. makes reckless decisions on the whim and rides in a helicopter close to the Golden Gate Bridge.  Complex ideas are teased out (Isn't Caesar's violence really Will's fault for playing God?  What drives Will to violate ethics?  How far can a person's love of family take him or her?  What are the ramifications for treating an animal like a human?) but never delved into in depth as the focus becomes apes destroying stuff, apes running rampant, apes climbing the Golden Gate Bridge (albeit a striking image).

In closing, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sets up a sequel that I will see, and it caused me to look at my two dogs-Bebe and Clementine-a little more closely and wonder what they are up to when they look at me.  I think this crowd pleasing film from last summer was probably fun to see on the big screen, providing audiences with a hint of complexity and depth without being fully committed to embrace the shadings of what happens when a person takes on the role of God as well as the responsibility of humans to the animal world.

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