Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rising Tides

There is a moment at about the three-quarters mark of Rise of the Planet of the Apes in which you will be so shocked and moved that you might think you're witnessing one of 2011's best cinema creations, if not Hollywood history's. This is a fleeting moment at best, and while most of this title is indeed an impressive production (and definitely much better than one would expect) this is one of a very few aspects of the film that match that feeling of wonder. As you can imagine, I was among those unimpressed by the idea of yet another Apes film, with the franchise seemingly gone completely overboard with Tim Burton's critically panned remake of the iconic original just ten years ago. A prequel that takes place during the modern day, everything was in place for me to hate this latest entry to the franchise: obvious computer digital effects, a cliched "good science gone bad" plot, and starring roles held by mediocre performers. These things usually add up to mediocre summer fare, but one thing I hadn't counted on was the talent of greenhorn director Rupert Wyatt. The English native made his directorial debut in the 2008 Sundance entry The Escapist, and while not many people actually saw that film (its box office gross tallies around $13,000) it was enough to catch the eyes of producers, who put him in charge of what can only be described as a major opportunity for one so inexperienced.

How many times have I told you NOT to leave the biological hazards within reach of the chimpanzees!?
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a dedicated man, scientist and son. With the intent of curing his father's Alzheimer's and restoring him to his former brilliance, Will has been working for years on a cure to this most confounding disease, only to endure a recent crop of animal testing that carries particularly tragic results. Long story short, Will's reputation is ruined, and he finds himself in possession of a baby chimpanzee whom he calls Caesar. Caesar was the son of one of Will's lab apes, and surprisingly takes on the characteristics of Will's experimental cure, beginning to display signs of increased intelligence, beginning with advanced puzzle-solving and sign language. Any fan of science fiction can tell you exactly where this is going, but the fun part is seeing how Caesar goes from domesticated chimp to battling ape leader.

He's wishing he hadn't waited the extra day to call the exterminator
While the human side of the story is rather lackluster and without an original thought, where the film really stands out is when the story is told from Caesar's point of view. While of course most of the main ape characters are computer generated, this does not turn out to be the problem it had seemed to be in previews. For one, the computer generated models actually allow you to easily identify a major character from the bulk of the ape horde. While these images look less than stellar on paper or still photos, the realistic movement makes more than enough amends for that slight flaw. The motion-capture work done to render the chimps is also amazing, thanks especially to Andy Serkis. Serkis' great work on films like King Kong and the Lord of the Rings trilogy will likely become the definition of his career, and his motion-capture work here is amongst the best I've seen since his rendition of Gollum. It's thanks to him that the ape storyline does so exceptionally well, and that's a good thing because without it, Rise wouldn't be much of the experience it turns out to be.

I seem to remember having more hair in my baby pictures...
If only that pesky human element didn't get in the way so much. James Franco is among my least favorite actors, having shown no inclination to live up those early James Dean comparisons. Here he once again squanders opportunity, with his rat-like appearance leading far too much of the film with his shoddy performance and complete lack of character. He's just the everyman who you're supposed to root for because he's familiar, rather than actually doing anything worth cheering. Slightly better is Freida Pinto as Will's beautiful and brilliant girlfriend who also happens to be a veterinarian. Essentially, her character has no depth beyond being the film's conscience, and she doesn't even do that particularly well. Better are some of the supporting characters played by David Oyelowo, Brian Cox and John Lithgow, but none of them are really used to their full potential. Perhaps it was meant that the animals are the heroes of this film, but those pesky humans couldn't have been worse off than the way this story left them.

I think we all know what comes next...
Most remarkable is the film's ability to feel like an allegory to human slavery, with chimpanzees kidnapped from their native jungles via violent means, transported across oceans for the whims of the white man, oppressed and caged against their will and disposed of when they prove troublesome. Caesar undergoes another familiar theme as he is at one point transferred from the "kind" solitude of living with Will and his father to the more ruthless animal sanctuary where he is abused by his gaolers and fellow apes. As I watch this, I'm reminded of Alex Haley's Roots and that book's remarkable story of slaves in the American South. It would be easy to compare the stories in Roots to what is presented here, and the fact that I can do so comprehensively is difficult to fathom when you consider how the work presented is from such a young director. I'm not certain where Wyatt got his inspiration, but he manages to let us perfectly follow entire scenes and sections of film where no dialogue is included and not be remotely confused by what we witness.

James... he's already a bigger star than you'll ever be
That directorial talent is what lands Rise of the Planet of the Apes at #9 for 2011. While the human characters could have been all but ignored without detriment to the plot, it is the story involving Caesar and his apes that makes this title the near-masterpiece it is. It's far better than you could have ever expected, and may qualify as 2011's biggest surprise. No, it's not perfect and will likely finish up the year outside the Top 10, yet this is probably the best Apes film since the 1968 original, and possibly even better than that Charleton Heston classic. No, I can't believe I'm recommending this title to you either, but the fact that I am means hat any inclination you might have had to see this in the theater must be followed. You'll never really appreciate what comes around three-fourths of the way in otherwise.

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