Monday, August 29, 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Ah, Planet of the Apes. Cultural icon. One of Charlton Heston's most notable roles. It's created some of our favorite jokes over the years. Who could forget "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" or "It's a mad house! A mad house!" or, of course, "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

Well, that was 1968. That film spawned no less than three sequels of declining quality. Then the series went dead fora decade or two. In 2001, Tim Burton tried to remake the original, sans its awesome final twist, but the less said about that film the better. Now, in 2011, we have Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Depending on your point of view, Rise is either an out-and-out prequel or a remake of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, one of the lesser sequels. And you know what? It's pretty good.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) is about Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape who as a result of medical experimentation is born with vastly increased intelligence. I say that the movie is about Caesar because despite the presence of some big-name actors in the film, Caesar appears to be the only fully-developed character. Here's the set-up. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a geneticist desperate to cure his ailing father (John Lithgow) of Alzheimers disease. To that end, he has created a drug that allows the brain to repair itself. A side-effect of this drug is that the brain continues to build even after it's repaired, leading to increased intelligence. Caesar is one of the first apes to benefit from the drug's effects. We follow Caesar's life as he is raised amongst humans, discovers he is not one of them, and struggles to find his place in the world.

I don't want to give anything away here. I enjoyed the film and I wholeheartedly recommend it, if only to watch Andy Serkis at work. The man has a history of great performances, from The Lord of the Rings (Gollum) to King Kong (uh, Kong), but they're all outshined by his work here. Serkis's Caesar is a living breathing primate, but also so much more. CGI has still only come so far, but Serkis makes us believe in the character nonetheless. Here is a CGI character with eyes that actually feel alive; you can actually watch the character working things out without a word spoken. One of the best parts of the film is watching Caesar learn to interact with other primates becoming a leader on the strength of his wit.

The other actors are competent, but ultimately unremarkable. Franco does a good-enough job as the scientist with a personal stake in his work. He's played as a bit of a milque-toast character, all compassion but very little personality. Frida Pinto as his girlfriend Caroline, however, is wasted. She's there simply because without her, there wouldn't be a single female character in the film. She adds nothing to the proceedings. John Lithgow does an excellent job with his limited screentime as Will's father. Lithgow is a gifted actor and it shows as he makes his conrfused character pitiable but avoids annoyance. David Oyelowo plays Will's evil corporate boss (because anything that's for-profit must be evil), who of course gets his, and rounding out the cast is the venerable Brian Cox (X-Men 2) as the owner of an ape sanctuary where Caesar cuts his teeth in battles against the owner's son, played by that master of screen bullies, Tom Felton (Harry Potter's Draco Malfoy). Cox and Felton are missed opportunities for greatness as well. Cox in particular is almost non-existent, muttering a line here and there as he stumbles through the film.

Despite the wasted cast, the film itself is quite good; it addresses nearly all of the problems lurking in its premise. Problems such as: How many apes can Caesar actually gather and make smarter in a few days? Even after they start rebelling, can't we just shoot them down? Even if they get away, won't we just hunt them down eventually? There aren't that many of them! How can a few genetically-altered apes take over the whole world? Have a little faith. The film addresses these things very well.

So again, I recommend this movie. Go, enjoy.

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