Saturday, August 13, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes - Theatrical Review


Release Date: August 5, 2011
Did anyone ask for another Planet of the Apes movie? After the train wreck delivered upon us by Tim Burton over a decade ago did anyone care anymore? If we did get another entry into the franchise did it even stand a chance at being a success? Most of all though what could a new Apes film have to offer us that we didn't already have? The answer of which is a whole lot apparently.

Review Vital Stats:
Theater: AMC 30 at the Block in Orange
Time: 10:00 pm March 13, 2011
Projector Type: Digital 2D

Loves: The original 1968 Planet of the Apes, Andy Serkis
Likes: James Franco, some of the Apes sequels
Neutral: Fully CG characters, reboots
Hates: Not a whole lot this time
Surprise!: This is one of the best films of the year

Until about a few months before Rise of the Planet of the Apes (which will be known as ROTPOTA from this point forward) was to be released I had no idea it was even being made. That is a shocker for me because I generally am pretty up to date on what films are being made well in advance of any sort of promotional media being released for it. I think part of the reason this was such a silent production is that the franchise itself wasn't too well regarded anymore and any early word leaked about it might have caused fans (such as myself) to be unkind towards the series revival. I know it isn't very fair to wish a series die off after an unsuccessful attempt to bring it back but I honestly didn't know where else they could go with it. Nobody wanted a sequel to the 2001 "re-imagining" and nobody wanted to attempt to restart it once again. Ten years heals a lot of wounds though and after my first viewing of the trailer for ROTPOTA I was surprisingly shocked by how promising it looked. I knew, and I am sure the filmmakers knew this as well, that they had a lot to prove to justify letting the apes out of their cages once again.

Will Rodman (James Franco) has found the cure for the Alzheimer's disease. But as he prepares to unveil his discovery there is an incident with his star test ape that causes the entire project to get put on hold and all the apes put down. Circumstances morally force Will to take home and care for one of the baby test apes named Caesar (Andy Serkis) though. Will, Caesar and Will's father Charles (John Lithgow), who also happens to be stricken with Alzheimer's, live together for the next few years as Caesar quickly begins to mature. But there was an unseen side effect to the drug Will was testing that has boosted Caesar's IQ beyond any ones expectations. As Caesar grows more intelligent with each passing day so does his yearning for freedom which will have an impact on Will's life and the human race in general like never imagined.

Will takes Caesar in to get looked at.

I'm not sure what our fascination is with the thought of these primates taking over our world and flipping the rules on us. Maybe it has something to do with just how human like they act and their uncanny ability to mimic human behavior but whatever it is it has made them the one of the most fascinating big screen creations of all time. And it is important to note that they have never been depicted as evil or malicious, at least not any more than a psychotic or bloodthirsty human can be depicted. The Apes films have always used them as a commentary on how we treat animals in general and how we see ourselves as a sort of supreme being over everything else in the universe. The themes in these movies are a way of putting us in our place, showing us just how selfish and shortsighted we can be and often times are. It is that one idea that has always intrigued me about these films and it is the one thing that many of the other films in the series have failed at.

Perhaps it was the disappointment that lingered from the Tim Burton film that left me so open to a reboot or maybe I was in just the right mindset when I sat down in that theater. But whatever it was I came away from ROTPOTA more satisfied than I ever thought I would. There were a number of contributing factors here that when all put together were responsible for reshaping a franchise that many, including myself, thought was dead. Without a doubt the prime factor here is everything surrounding the character Caesar. The astounding (but not unexpected) acting by Serkis, the mostly dazzling effects work done on the apes (I thought the young Caesar looked a little rough) and a script that focused on the one thing that has always been the key ingredient to every Planet of the Apes movie ever made, the apes themselves.

Caesar is all too aware what is happening around him.

When a Planet of the Apes movie puts the human characters in the forefront it usually doesn't turn out very good. And that isn't because it is a bad idea, it is a combination of the apes always being the more interesting subject and most of the human characters being rather dull or one dimensional. Somehow though ROTPOTA managed to include both interesting human characters and interesting apes. Don't get me wrong here though, Caesar's story is far more significant than anything else brought up in the film. The relationship between Will and his father certainly isn't a throwaway side plot though and actually helps provide much of the empathy we feel for Will and the problems he is dealing with. I just feel as though that part of the film and everything dealing with the humans is more or less there to help propel the larger story at play, the story of how one ape named Caesar would rise to be the leader of his race.

The relationship between Will and his dad is not the only father/son relationship in the film though, probably the most significant bond forged in the film is that between Caesar and Will. Their connection to each other is one of pain and sorrow. Caesar is the representation for all of Will's successes and his failures while Will is both Caesar's savior and his captor. None of those aspects are cut and dry though, you can tell that they both care for one another deeply in an almost father and son sort of way but their differences and internal conflicts are too much for them to every truly be happy with where they are. This is the driving force behind all the drama of the film and I would be lying if I didn't say that there were moments between the two of them that tugged at my heart strings. Just everything dealing with the two of them was pitch perfect, from the acting to the directing and even on the script level. It is clear as day that everyone involved in the film knew what they were working towards.

Caesar has a little surprise for his ape inmates.

But the best moments in the film take place later on in its second half, when Caesar is left to fend for himself in a overly hostile environment where he must use his superior intellect to overcome the odds. It is also in this second act where the movie completely shifts gears away from the human elements of the story and instead we focus more on what essentially boils down to your everyday prison movie formula...but with apes. Despite all the cliches of that genre being present here with the new guy having to prove himself and then win over some other inmates to help him achieve his goals this section of the film is when I got completely invested in the plight of Caesar. His struggle for freedom and of equality is not shared by his fellow apes which is due to their significant lack of intelligence which Caesar must remedy. This whole part of the film is showing us the building blocks of a leader, Caesar was not born or leader, he became one and this is how he did it.

Without getting into more spoiler material than I have to I feel it is important to point out that this movie isn't exactly what it is selling itself as. Anyone that has seen the trailers for it can tell it that the third act and finale of the movie is indeed depicted with the apes attacking and trying to take over the planet. Now I guess this is sort of a spoiler (not really though) but that isn't the case at all. The campaign that Caesar leads is not to take down humanity or to even hurt humans at all. His agenda from minute one is for freedom, to be free of the shackles that humanity has placed on him and his fellow apes. While it made sense to lock them up before it doesn't quite work when the creatures you are incarcerating are probably smarter than you and let you know it. So get it out of your head right now, any visions you had of a war between the humans and apes will have to wait for the inevitable sequel because that is not what this movie is about and I for one think it is all the better for it.

This is the part when you run.

The reason that isn't really a spoiler though is because we see and understand Caesar's motivations from minute one. He has no reason to hate ALL humans, he was raised and cared for by a family that loved him as a son. What he wanted and began yearning for the older he got was to no longer be seen or treated as a pet. He was tired of how humans were afraid of him due to their staggering amount of stupidity, he just needed the right push in a certain direction that would force him to fulfill his destiny. This foundation for everything that transpires in the film is what I loved most about it and it is the closest any of the Planet of the Apes sequels, re-imaginings or reboots have ever gotten to the meaning at the core of that original 1968 classic. What has captivated audiences so much with these films is not so much the trappings but more the underlying message of it all which is don't f**k with mother nature.

For all this praise though I must confess that it is not a perfect movie. As already mentioned most of the human cast is worthless beyond servicing some vengeful moments later in the film. James Franco and John Lithgow were the only two humans I cared about in the entire movie, not even the thrown in love interest for Franco's character amounted to anything other than to be the voice of reason. All the humans at the zoo/ape center where Caesar is locked up at only ever had to act either complacent or like giant A-holes, with a surprise appearance by Tom Felton (otherwise known as Draco from the Harry Potter series) who was responsible for delivering one of the signature lines from the series and in my opinion completely failed at it. It may seem a little harsh to knock a movie for not supplying something that didn't really matter too much but in the few major scenes involving many of these card board cut out characters I never found myself conflicted, I wanted the humans to die...but maybe that was the point right?

Caesar stands tall with his new found friends and allies.

I don't know and I don't really care because at this point I am just happy that someone somewhere finally got it right. This is a clear cut case of all the little things coming together to make a fantastic whole from the script level, to the acting, to the spectacular effects used to create Caesar and the directing of Rupert Wyatt whom I have never heard of until now but is a name I will be on the look out for the in future. The simple fact that most of this review is taken up with praise instead or condemnation is some kind of a miracle and anyone out there that has neglected to give this film a chance mainly due to being burnt one too many times in the past by other entries into the series should reconsider their stance and....




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