Thursday, February 20, 2014

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Coming into this movie I had only seen the original Planet of the Apes film, which I previously wrote about on this blog, and the 2001 remake directed by Tim Burton (Ape Lincoln!). Rise of the Planet of the Apes serves as both a reboot of the series and a prequel. It tries to have it both ways in this respect like X-Men: First Class which also came out in 2011. This is a bit confusing as Rise of the Planet of the Apes sometimes goes out of its way to tie itself into the original (mentions of the spaceship) but at other moments features new ideas and concepts from the sequels such as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. Honestly, this could've easily been its own movie not part of the POTA series, which is apparently how it was originally conceived. Although I love the original 1968 film, I never understood why this  became a franchise, other than the popularity of the first movie, which felt very stand alone.

The original POTA film implies that a nuclear war caused human civilization to end and apes to rise, but this movie has the apes become intelligent as a result of drug testing while a related epidemic takes a huge bite out of the human population. There are also a lot of callbacks to the original film. While some of these are subtle such as Caesar playing with a toy Statue of Liberty, others are more obvious like the use of the line "Take your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" which occasionally took me out of the movie. To be fair these references are done well and fit in naturally (except for the spaceship stuff which was tacked on) and wouldn't be noticed by people who haven't seen the original. There are also parallels to the original such as the main characters being put in captivity and hosed down. I thought these generally worked even though inverting the original film is kinda strange since that story in itself was an inversion of humans and apes. You could title this movie Planet of the Humans!

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes a bio-tech company creates a drug that allows the brain to repair itself and is intended to be a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. When testing seems to go wrong, the apes being tested on the project are all put down except for one baby who is taken in by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Rodman only intends to keep the chimpanzee temporarily but discovers that the ape inherited high intelligence from its mother due to the drug and decides to raise it. The ape, named Caesar, learns more as he is raised by Rodman but craves to explore the outside world.

Caesar is the main character of the movie and despite not being human, this his story. The film really shines whenever Caesar is the focus. Caesar has a fascinating character arc going from a subservient chimp living with humans to leader of the apes. Caesar communicates with the other apes using sign language which is subtitled. I thought this was a creative spin on things as it differs from the original film with talking apes while also telling the story well without a ton of dialogue at times. Andy Serkis does a great job yet again with the motion capture acting. The CGI used for the apes was very good. I usually still realized I was watching effects but this was mainly with the eyes and faces. The textures of the hair were better than I anticipated and the movements from (I assume) motion capture are very fluid.

Both Rodman and his father (played by John Lithgow who I didn't know was in this movie coming in but puts in a nice performance as usual) with Alzheimer's Disease are interesting but there isn't much to the other human characters. Freida Pinto's character doesn't have much to do other than her introduction scene at the zoo and is nothing more than James Franco's girlfriend after that. If there must be a love interest can she at least be integrated into the story more? Tom Felton, best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movie series, does a good job of playing a mean villain. However, we never get any motivation as to why he is a bad guy. I think the intention was that he has a shitty life and is taking it out on the apes in the primate shelter but this never actually comes across. Besides Serkis, Felton and Lithgow are the acting bright spots but don't have that much screen time. Everyone else is average at best.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
is well paced. I've frequently complained of recent Hollywood blockbusters being too long but this one comes in at a sleek 105 minutes and doesn't overstay its welcome.
The movie is not without some plot problems. For example, if you had a neighbor who has Alzheimer's disease and also owns a chimp, would you leave your car keys in your unlocked vehicle which is parked on a public street? It doesn't help that this is a pivotal scene which sets up the rest of the film.
The climax is a cool action set piece on the Golden Gate Bridge. While the scene is well made and fun to watch, wouldn't it have made more sense for the apes to just get past the bridge (or find a more discreet way) to the Muir Woods as quick as possible instead of making a stand?

Despite some issues I still liked Rise of the Planet of the Apes. I would place Rise somewhere in the middle of the chasm between the great original film and the crappy 2001 remake. I can't say I'm excited for the sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, teased in the post-credits scene, but at least it will have Gary Oldman in it.

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