One can only imagine the primo weed that Pierre Boulle was smoking when he conceived and wrote the original Planet Of The Apes novel in 1963. The idea of a planet ruled by simians, who keep mankind enslaved as a brute labor force, doesn’t strike one as being any less ridiculous now, 40 years later, but to its credit, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes doesn’t treat it as such. It takes its subject matter seriously, pondering how such a planet could come to be; its answer might not be especially plausible, but it’s a well-told story nonetheless, with some exceptional special effects and a fine performance by Andy Serkis to ground the film and give credence to its storyline of good science gone bad.
The fact that Serkis himself never actually appears in the film shouldn’t detract from that fact that his performance is special; he, of course, donned the mocap suit and face-forward camera that has increasingly defined the world of CGI “acting” in the 21st century for his role as Caesar, the ape that launches what we can only presume to be the first strike in the monkey uprising against humans. It’s his journey from Just Plain Caesar to General Caesar, Chimp In Chief that defines the film; it’s a magnetizing mixture of recognizable emotion and impressively-rendered effects that makes it easy to root for the apes, even as they begin their military excursion into San Francisco.
The human side of the film is somewhat less interesting, unfortunately, with James Franco and the other cast members fitting into broadly stock archetypes. Franco is Will Rodman, “the scientist who’s obsessed with results and is willing to skirt legal and ethical boundaries to get them,” while his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) is “the slimy CEO in a suit who’s more concerned about making money than helping people” and Frieda Pinto turns in a slight performance as “the female love interest who gently chides her man when he starts to go too far.” These are all characters we’ve seen before in stuff like The Fly, and most recently, Splice, but the film doesn’t go so far as to offend with its clichés; the humans are mostly adjuncts to Caesar’s story. The performances are all generally fine, although Franco often seems to be acting his way through a hangover or an illness; he has a shade of that unwelcome tiredness that seems to pop up in his acting from time to time, which makes it difficult to connect to the supposed drive of the character. Franco does a lot of things well, but “obsessed passion” doesn’t appear to be one of them.
Rodman’s goal in the film is to develop a cure for Alzheimer's by means of an experimental drug that stimulates the brain to create new neural pathways. Ape tests look positive, with some curious side effects; the apes exposed to the drug Rodman’s developing gain significant amounts of intelligence, which is transmitted to their non-drugged offspring. Caesar is the first child born to a super-smart ape and, fearing that he’ll be asked to destroy him, Rodman instead brings him home, where he and his Alzheimer’s-ridden father raise him in almost human fashion...save for the leash he’s forced to wear whenever they escape to the redwood forest so that Caesar can swing freely. Caesar is, of course, eventually discovered after a violent confrontation with a neighbor, and is sent to a primate house which effectively serves as a monkey lockup.
It’s here that WETA’s work on the creature effects starts to shift into high gear; Caesar as wide-eyed innocent is humorous, but Caesar as jailhouse tough guy is absolutely riveting. Serkis, of course, has a bit of a background in monkey work, having virtually “starred” in Peter Jackson’s King Kong a few years back, but it’s startling to see just how far the technology of creature creation has come in the short six years between the films. Caesar is a tremendous accomplishment in CGI, able to communicate pride, fear, and a sinister and calculating cunningness in the flick of an eye or a shift in facial expression; we know everything he’s thinking without him having to say a word, like a violent WALL-E, which is a hallmark of fine acting, whether you consider this “acting” or not.
The script also deserves credit for introducing numerous other simians; Caesar meets gorillas, bonabos, and other primates in his lock-up, and goes to work winning them over with bribes, favors, and the occasional moment of intimidation. At times you can’t help but laugh at the ingenuity of it all: the primate house segment of this film is as entertaining a jail movie as I’ve seen in years, despite the fact that none of the residents of the jail actually exist. WETA chose to go all-digital for all of its apes in the film, forgoing any of the normal animal wrangling or training (or, god forbid, human costuming) that would normally be required for an ape-focused film of this magnitude, but that doesn’t really seem to be much of a gamble in 2011. As it is, they manage to imbue each member of their digital cast with a distinctive name, personality, and look, making it much easier to tell them apart than you might think.
That becomes important as Caesar plots the ape escape that acts as the climax of the film. It’s a breathless little war sequence that serves as a natural payoff for all the talk about monkey intelligence the film has indulged in beforehand; Caesar and his troops employ tactics, take advantage of their environment, and utilize their special capabilities to overwhelm a human force that naturally thinks they’re dealing with a bunch of escaped zoo animals. Director Rupert Wyatt does a great job of steadily framing the action without resorting to the shakicam that so many war sequences seem to rely on nowadays. It reminded me, in a way, of District 9’s finale, in that Wyatt helpfully steps back from the action and gives you a clear view of precisely what’s going on without feeling the need to obscure it with rapid camera movements or extreme close-ups. The work that the film does to distinguish each of the apes before this sequence pays off as well, as we're able to tell them all apart as they fight together.
It’s difficult to separate the effects work in the film from the character work, simply because Caesar and his troops are the primary reason to see Rise. We’re past the time when CGI characters are interesting simply because they're CGI, but Caesar and his band feel as real, if not more real, than Franco and his human cohorts in the context of the film, and that reality is what makes you believe Rise when it reaches for often chilling emotional beats. Despite a marketing campaign that has done its best to tell you the entire story of the film from beginning to end, the nuance and subtlety with which WETA has realized Caesar still makes the film worth watching: CGI or not, he’s one of the most compelling characters to hit the screen this summer.
International Trailer: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes
Apparently, "international trailer" is code for "let's show you the whole damn movie." Seriously, there ought to be a spoiler warning on this thing.
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