Monday, August 29, 2011

A Frank Review of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)

The Short Version? Man vs. Ape in the Bay Area.
What Is It? Science Fiction.
Who Is In It? Gollum, Harry Osborn, Dick Solomon, Hannibal Lecter v1.0
Should I See It? Yes.

For thirty-eight years, there were no good movies released in the Planet of the Apes franchise. Battle was a cheap, pointless cash grab billed as the "final chapter" of the series. It technically ended with the second movie, but for an Ouroboros timeline. The 2001 reboot was a prefabricated blockbuster no one especially liked that was long on spectacular practical effects but short on much else. Rise of the Planet of the Apes marks a long awaited return, if not to greatness, at least to goodness and relevance to modern audiences.

Rise begins a new continuity tasked with explaining in believable terms how apes could gain the intelligence to inherit the earth from an increasingly rare humanity. Now that terms like "mutually assured destruction" have fallen into disuse, the pseudoscientific vehicle has been updated. An Alzheimer's disease researcher breaches ethics in pursuit of a cure for his rapidly deteriorating father. The cure proves worse than the disease, as testing leads to ape subjects attaining full sentience and turning to violence in order to be afforded basic rights as thinking, feeling beings. Eldest among them is Caesar, the lone survivor of the original tests. Raised among humans, Caesar is forced to choose between being an inferior amongst homo sapiens, or helping to raise his fellow apes in the face of human cruelty and subjugation.

James Franco plays a rather disinterested and not especially credible scientist version of James Franco in semi-stoned douche mode. Freida Pinto plays a really hot looking chick whose take on a veterinarian is of only slightly greater believability than Denise Richards as a nuclear physicist. Brian Cox plays the evil dude he plays in every second or third movie. Tom Felton plays a washed up Kentucky Fried Draco Malfoy, still dependent on a wand to represent the sum of his manhood. David Oyelowo's character is only interested in making money, while Jamie Harris is a sensitive but uselessly weak animal handler. David Hewlett is an asshole neighbor who is never not an asshole, while Tyler Labine is adequate in a perfunctory role. Unlike most movies, the cumulative effect of all of these threadbare characters and/or lackluster performances is not a bad movie, but the highly desirable effect of leading audiences to actively root against their own species.

The actual stars of the picture are the fantastic digital effects team of Weta Digital and their motion capture performance artists. It's funny that Freida Pinto is in this movie, because her previous greatest success was Slumdog Millionaire. That was ¾ of a great foreign language film sold to the masses through its corny one quarter English portion featuring Pinto. The same trick is pulled here, except instead of Indian children speaking Hindi with subtitles, it's apes with sign language. Both movies endear audiences through the Dickensian indignities suffered by the downtrodden protagonists as they struggle in an uncaring world.

Andy Serkis' Caesar progresses from wide eyed apelet to angsty adolescent to a confused adult in a world he's never known. It's a magnificent performance made all the more admirable by Serkis' ability to convey layered emotions and complex reasoning entirely through facial expression and body language. Caesar ends up being a more sympathetic, cunning, and inspirational figure than Benicio del Toro over the 4½ hour running time of Che. Then again, so was Roddy McDowall in the '70s, but he lacked the benefit of Weta's gorgeous CGI. Also benefiting are Terry Notary as Caesar's mother Bright Eyes, Richard Ridings as the gorilla strong arm Buck, and Chris Gordon as Caesar's dark reflection, Koba. Deserving special note is Karin Konoval as Maurice, an orangutan who reflects that species' role both in name and action as related to the prior series, and serves as Caesar's worthy lieutenant.

Of the humans on screen, only John Lithgow warrants singling out in his portrayal of an Alzheimer's sufferer who makes a lasting impression on Caesar. Not only is his character the individual most responsible for Caesar's nobility, but his progression through the film parallels and informs Caesar's. The film's script is often emotionally manipulative and grasps at the low hanging fruits, especially in relation to almost vulgarly obvious nods to the franchise's history. However, the relationship between Caesar and his "grandfather," when buoyed by the performances, marks high water marks in both the story and the marriage between life & CGI. Once Lithgow is shuffled off, it's all on the backs of the apes, and the weight of the production is carried admirably.

Ultimately, I would place Rise of the Planet of the Apes fourth in terms of overall quality within the franchise. The original remains untouched as a cultural landmark; a perfect storm of acting, directing, music, effects, set design, script, statement and concept. Escape has the most affective acting and sweet charm, while Conquest is the most politically charged and emotionally brutal. Rise's primary claim to the series' sociopolitical commentary is its exploration of the ethical treatment of animals and the absolute self-possession of man even against the good of mankind. Solid enough, and a good deal more meaty than the limp science fantasy of the previous two installments, but lacking the visceral punch of reflecting race relations in the midst of the civil rights movement. As impressive as the apes are, none are as memorable as characters like Cornelius, Zira and Dr. Zaius. With the exception of MacDonald, the human characters in these films have never been of such negligible value. Still, Rise remains impressive, appealing, and sets the stage for exciting sequels to come.

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