Saturday, August 13, 2011

In Theaters: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

poster and IMPAwards link
If I didn’t know any better I’d swear that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was propaganda designed to make us feel good about the coming simian uprising. True, we haven’t seen any evidence that such a thing is in the offing, but the perverse joy of this film is that takes the “nature’s revenge” plotline to its inevitable extreme and has us rooting for a pack of damned dirty apes. That a second attempt at rebooting a decades-old movie franchise (long after Tim Burton’s less-than-ideal effort) feels like one of the most fresh and original big movies of the year is probably damning of something, but the film itself is such a positive experience, one that not only lives up to the potential suggested by its advertising but actually exceeds it.

The star of the film is Caesar (a CGI creation with motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis), a chimpanzee born to a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s drug. His mother is killed along with the other test apes, but a remorseful doctor (James Franco) brings him home to his increasingly senile father (John Lithgow.) With the drug, which promotes the growth of new brain cells, passed on genetically, Caesar develops a remarkable intelligence, becoming like a member of the family and gaining the ability to communicate with his surrogate father. He is eventually discovered, and thrown by court order into a grim and poorly run primate enclosure, at the mercy of a particularly sadistic keeper (Tom Felton of all people.) Caesar continues to learn, and decides that maybe the other apes could use a boost to their intelligence- and as luck would have it, the pharmaceutical company that got the ball rolling is testing a newer, stronger version of the drug. A few escapes and night raids later, and soon enough we got ourselves an ape army.

For a while, the movie pretends to be about its human characters and their struggles, and it’s not bad at it. Franco and Lithgow and the lovely Freida Pinto give just fine performances, and Felton (no longer menacing Hogwarts) is virtually unrecognizable. But as Caesar’s relationship with his human family sours, he gets more screentime to himself, and his interactions with the fellow apes at the primate “sanctuary” enter the film’s dramatic foreground. The effect is to invert the apocalyptic vibe that the premise suggests; as the humans continue to set up their own destruction, the apes learn and communicate and build something resembling a society. It’s frankly fascinating, and it’s hard not to see them as the good guys in all this, even as some of the humans remain sympathetic. It also helps that the apes aren’t really dedicated to totally wiping us out; at several points Caesar tries to get his comrades-in-hairy-arms to refrain from killing innocent or defenseless humans.

The visual effects on the film are rare in that they not only bring the story to life, they do actually make it better. We’ve seen performance capture used effectively in other sci-fi epics (Avatar most significantly), but the apes- all digital, with no live animals used- are still more convincing, capable of extremely subtle and nuanced expressions. There are the inevitable telltale signs that we are looking at something digital in a live-action environment (they’re always a little too in-focus), but on their own the apes are nothing less than real. It’s something of a leap forward for digital performance, allowing the skill of the performers to shine through as clearly as with makeup or puppetry.

The film is littered with treats for fans of the original Apes movies; there are not only in-joke references but details that genuinely anticipate this being the same world. Of course, now that the Cold War has ended, a threat other than nuclear annihilation is necessary for our overthrow by simians to be plausible, but without spoiling too much I’d say the film comes up with a good approach. Some of the callbacks nicely evoke the series’ thematic interpretations of the ape rebellion, without going too blatantly into any kind of social allegory.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes leaves us wanting more; it ends a little too soon, perhaps, though sequels are already being discussed. But for its running time Rise is immensely satisfying; its tinkering with our sympathies and the basic structure of an apocalyptic uprising narrative means it’s full of surprises, even if the title gives the game away. For a franchise reboot it’s downright quirky, and the overall feeling is one of subversive fun at the human race’s expense. Apparently when the revolution does come, it won’t be so bad.

Suggested by the novel “La Planéte des Singes” by Pierre Boulle (uncredited)
Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Rupert Wyatt

Grade: A-

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