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You could say that the simians steal the show in RISE OF THE
PLANET OF THE APES, except that, of course, it’s their show to begin with.
Die-hard fans of the classic science-fiction franchise might get their fur
bristling over this franchise reboot, which puts aside the time-paradox
narrative in favor of a scientific origin for the interspecies war, but most
viewers will find this a surprisingly satisfying rethink of the concept.
Following Tim Burton’s more direct PLANET OF THE APES remake
in 2001, which grossed big but left little lasting impression, it seemed a bit
of a risk to go at the concept again, this time employing the all-too-familiar
catalyst of genetic engineering. After a prologue of chimpanzee capture that
immediately aligns audience sympathy on the side of the animals, the story
proper begins in the San Francisco labs of Gen-Sys, where Will Rodman (James
Franco) is performing tests on experimental apes in hopes of finding a cure for
Alzheimer’s disease. Franco, whose persona tends to be that of someone too cool
for science class, at first seems an odd choice to play a committed researcher,
but the actor adopts the right tone of earnestness and ambition for the role.
We soon learn that Will’s got a particular reason to pursue his project: his
father Charles (a nice turn by John Lithgow), a formerly celebrated music
teacher who’s lost his talent to the aforementioned affliction.
Will’s making real progress with his serum, especially when
it comes to a chimp subject nicknamed “Bright Eyes”—one of several affectionate
in-references to the original PLANET OF THE APES. (A less flattering one is
that Will’s greed-driven boss, Steven Jacobs—played by David Oyelowo—is
evidently named after the original film series’ producer Arthur P. Jacobs.)
Bright Eyes is to be the centerpiece of a presentation to the project’s
financial backers, but in the first of several action setpieces excitingly
staged by director Rupert Wyatt, she goes, well, ape, with unfortunate results.
This sets in motion a series of events in which Bright Eyes’ offspring, Caesar,
who has inherited her altered DNA, is first raised by Will and then subjected
to barbarous treatment by other humans that foment in his mind the seeds of
Caesar thus becomes RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES’ true
protagonist, with lengthy stretches containing no dialogue, just increasingly
human expressions conveying his burgeoning emotions and awareness. This could
have become silly were it not for the remarkable and thoroughly convincing
computerized creation of Caesar as well as numerous other primates, which not
only forestalls criticism regarding the replacement of the previous movies’
prosthetics with pixels, but makes it clear CGI was the only possible way to go
with this scenario. The level of digitized realism is no surprise coming from
Weta Digital and its performance capture of actor Andy Serkis, given their
achievements with Gollum in the LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy and the R&D they put
into KING KONG (a gorilla gets in on the action here as well).
Caesar’s evolution from docile pet to guerrilla leader
(sorry, couldn’t resist) is dramatic, scary, tragic and fully developed within
the narrative, and also dovetails with what we know from a few unfortunate
recent real-life cases about how cute little chimps grow up to be unpredictable
and potentially murderous beasts. Some of the supporting apes are given
distinctive personalities as well, allowing for a number of entertaining
interactions—but also throwing into relief the fact that the two-legged
characters aren’t nearly as well-developed. Will is a solid enough human lead,
though the script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (whose credits include THE
RELIC) skirts his complicity in the downfall of humanity, and the people around
him are largely one-dimensional. These include Caroline (Freida Pinto), a
veterinarian by trade whose main role is to be The Girlfriend, and the
villains, including Jacobs, a nasty primate-center employee played by Tom Felton
(grunged-out and almost unrecognizable from his long-running part in the HARRY
POTTER epics) and a jerkwad neighbor of the Rodmans.
Fortunately, Wyatt keeps the pace speeding along and the
ape-human and ape-ape confrontations coherently and compellingly presented,
building to a terrific, lengthy climactic fracas on a fog-shrouded Golden Gate
Bridge. Having previously done the smaller but not entirely dissimilar
prison-break drama THE ESCAPIST, he shows real chops for this kind of
big-ticket filmmaking, and an equal skill with grace notes, as when the passage
of a number of apes through the treetops is first signaled by a falling of
leaves onto curious people below. His work on RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
makes you want to see the director get another big-ticket genre/action film,
perhaps a continuation of this story (as teased in a mid-end-credits
sequence)—one that allows as much of an emotional investment with its humans as
with its apes.
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