Sunday, August 21, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes / *** (PG-13)

Will Rodman: James Franco
Caroline Aranha: Freida Pinto
Charles Rodman: John Lithgow
John Landon: Brian Cox
Dodge Landon: Tom Felton
Steven Jacobs: David Oyelowo
Caesar (motion capture performance): Andy Serkis

Twentieth Century Fox presents a film directed by Rupert Wyatt. Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver. Suggested by the novel “La plan├Ęte des singes” by Pierre Boulle. Running time: 105 min. Rated PG-13 (for violence, terror, some sexuality, and brief strong language).

“The Planet of the Apes” is a franchise that has a lot of legacy to live up to. The new reboot of the franchise, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, lives up to that legacy by wiping most of the slate clean, ala “Star Trek”, while still retaining a measured amount of referencing to show reverence toward its origins.

We meet a San Francisco scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco, “127 Hours”). Rodman is tasked with finding a cure to Alzheimer’s disease. Working with simians, he’s developed a virus that attacks the cells infected by the disease and rebuilds them. The ape test subjects display greater intelligence than prior to their injections with the virus. Rodman thinks the serum is ready for human trials. After seeing his results, Rodman’s boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, “The Last King of Scotland”), wants to sell it to the board of directors. Unfortunately, an accident in the lab brings the whole operation crashing down. Rodman is faced with having to put down all of his test subjects.

As will happen with such plots, good intentions start a string of events that will change the fate of the world. One of Rodman’s test subjects gave birth just before the incident. Rodman can’t bring himself to put the baby chimp down, so he takes him home. Once home, we learn the motivation behind Rodman’s search for a cure. His dad (John Lithgow, “Dexter”) is dying from the disease. Once Rodman realizes that the baby ape has had the effects of his virus passed down to it and is growing more intelligent as it ages, he decides to try the serum on his father.

I could continue to give plot details here as they are quite intriguing, but that’s part of why you should go see this movie. Suffice it to say, the ape, named Caesar by Rodman’s father, becomes part of the family. When situations arise that suggest Caesar might be a danger, he is remanded to an ape facility where he uses his advanced intelligence to first appropriate the rule of the facility apes from another, bigger ape. Then he leads an ape uprising against his human wardens and the entire city.

This origin reboot story is much better conceived and executed by director Rupert Wyatt and his screenwriters than the prequels to the original series, “Escape from the Planet of the Apes” and “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”. The motion capture technology used to create performances by plausible looking apes helps to sell the story here. Andy Serkis, the leading expert of performance capture for his performance creations of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings” and the giant ape in “King Kong”, provides the lead simian performance. Wyatt focuses a great amount of attention on the eyes, which are the windows into Caesar’s soul.

The heavy emphasis on social commentary that was the foundation of the series’ previous origin story isn’t as strongly presented here. The thematic element leans more toward the folly of man trying to play God. Even that theme is not as heavily emphasized as plot is here. The result is a strange amalgam of protagonists and antagonists. In some ways the movie favors man and in some ways the apes. Both Rodman and Caesar are presented as protagonists, but because of their different species they end up on opposite sides of the conflict.

There are many CGI action scenes near the end of the movie. These involve the apes fighting their way out of the city as the men try to get them under control. It’s a little hard to gage just how to feel about this conflict because most of the people the apes are fighting never did anything to them, but the film makes a good case for how these intelligent apes with personalities of their own have been abused by man in general and just want to find their own place in this world. It raises questions of perspective, but there is really no right and wrong precedent here.

Some of the joys of the movie are the subtle (and some not so subtle) references to the original “Planet of the Apes” story. I think the purpose of this movie is really to wipe the slate clean and begin the whole series again. But, the filmmakers understand that as a franchise they do have some obligation to the original material. There’s a nice subtle reference in one scene where Caesar is constructing a 3D Statue of Liberty puzzle. There are also background news stories about a manned spacecraft that is lost. These are possibly the astronauts that will eventually find themselves trapped on the “Planet of the Apes” of the future. The abusive caretaker at the apes facility played by Tom Felton (of the “Harry Potter” films) has some more direct references with a couple of lines. I liked his use of “It’s a mad house, a mad house!” but “Get your hands off me, you damn dirty ape!” was a little over the top.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” makes for an exciting and intelligent re-introduction to the “Planet of the Apes” franchise. Like “Star Trek”, it does a good job of starting from scratch without ignoring everything that has come before. It’s also like “Star Trek” in that it runs a little light on the science fiction thematic material that helped make the original so strong. Overall however, there is little to complain about in this new vision of this cherished film property. A reboot made this well provides good entertainment with the promise of even better things to come.

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