Wednesday, December 28, 2011

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (2011)

Starring James Franco, John Lithgow and Andy Serkis
Written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Rated PG-13 - Language, violence
Running Time: 105 Minutes

I've seen some truly outright terrible prequels.  And some really awesome ones. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" thankfully falls into the latter category. 

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer's, and has created a viral gene therapy he believes will allow the human brain to repair itself.  After his most promising ape trial goes wrong and the investors pull out, Will rescues an infant chimpanzee from being put down.  He takes the chimp home, where he lives with his father Charles (John Lithgow), who suffers from Alzheimer's.  Charles is immediately taken with the chimp, and names him Caesar (Andy Serkis). 

Will soon learns that Caesar is no ordinary chimp.  The enhanced genes of his mother have been passed to him, and he shows incredible intelligence as he matures.  At the same time, Will sneaks home some of his defunct viral research and tests it on Charles, and Charles begins to recover from his disease.  One day, after Charles suffers a relapse and damages their neighbor's (David Hewlett) car, Caesar comes to his rescue and bites off the neighbor's finger.  Will is ordered to surrender Caesar to an Animal Control primate facility. 

In this facility, Caesar begins to understand the mistreatment of his people at the hands of humans.  The facility administrator, Landon (Brian Cox) is uncaring and corrupt, while his son Dodge (Tom Felton) who handles the apes themselves, is outright cruel.  Only the dim-witted Rodney (Jamie Harris) shows any kindness to the apes.  Caesar quickly begins to understand what has happened to him, and manages to break out of the facility, steal some of Will's virus, and begins to teach the other apes to rise up against their oppressors.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" took pretty much everyone by surprise this summer when it turned out to not be terrible.  Trepidation was high, since everyone remembers the lame Tim Burton/Mark Wahlberg remake from a few years back, and that the studio decided to open it in the dead zone of August, typically a dumping ground for the summer's lamer flicks didn't help.  But "Rise" surprisingly became both a critical and financial success, thanks to impeccable production values and a  well-rounded script.

Make no bones about it, the real star of the show here is Caesar, and Andy Serkis and the WETA Digital effects shop have done some real movie magic.  Even without dialogue, you always know exactly what Caesar is thinking and feeling thanks to his movements and his incredibly expressive face.  The amount of information he's able to convey with just a look, or the way he carries himself, is incredible.  Serkis and WETA previously worked together to bring to life Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, and they've truly outdone themselves here. 

"Rise" is Caesar's story, even though we follow a couple other plot threads throughout.  But the real joy of "Rise" is watching Caesar form relationships with the other apes, including a bully called Rocket and a caged gorilla named Buck.  And once Caesar's insurrection is unleashed in the third act, these story threads all prove to have a point. 

The rest of the cast all does fine, though some better than others.  Frieda Pinto's role as a veterinarian and Will's wife is underdeveloped, and David Oyelowo as Will's boss Jacobs is also a pretty basic villainous businessman type.  He's not interested in the apes, merely how much money he can make off of them. "Stargate" regular David Hewlett does fine in his brief role as Will's jerk neighbor, but with only three or four lines in the whole movie, there's not really much else to say about him.  Of the supporting characters, John Lithgow does the best.  He's very effective at creating his character even with the limited screentime he gets, and I'd have loved to have seen more of him in this role.

So while the human characters in the film may be a bit thin, the script pours all the goods into the ape side of things.  The third act is a rollicking action set piece as the apes' attempt to escape the city turns nearly into all-out warfare.  The humans constantly underestimate the apes' intelligence and power, and the apes actually communicate with each other and devise tactics to defeat the humans.  Director Rupert Wyatt creates a number of iconic images for Caesar to show him as a leader.  Also fun is a number of little nods to the previous films in the series sprinkled throughout the film, including mentions of the Icarus spaceflight and glimpses of a colorful circus. 

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" functions both as prequel and reboot.  Apparently this will be a new series of films, but one can see enough of the original continuity in it for it to go either way.  What the producers have wisely done is simply make a good film rather than just be slaves to continuity and go through basic checklists of things that need to happen to set up other films.  "Rise" is great entertainment, with some real movie magic at work in creating the Caesar character.