Sunday, August 21, 2011

Go Ape for "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"

Before I saw “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I thought its problem was that the entire plot of the movie was told in the trailers.  And of course, our collective memory knows all the earlier movies from 1968 on, so why go see this prequel when we know how it ends?

(c) 2011 Twentieth Century Fox Films
I was so wrong.  Director Rupert Wyatt keeps this story running and bouncing and leaping, and we eagerly follow along.  The incredible visual effects team made a lot of actors into apes, chimps, orangutans — they are real.  Of course, the visual effects team has already won Oscars for creating the extraordinary worlds of Avatar and Lord of the Rings.  “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is filled with terrific stunts and effects by a very long list of people, as well as moving music by Patrick Doyle.

The film opens on an idyllic scene, mountains, forests, green everywhere.  Chimps and apes travel through the tall trees, perfectly happy as they were, where they were.  Once rounded up by humans, they become prisoners and victims.  We see the frightened eyes of one peering through a hole in a crate as she looks back at her friends and family in the forest.  Thus the film begins, from the apes’ point of view.
These particular humans were so irresponsible and inept that they didn’t know “Bright Eyes” was pregnant and proceeded to do drug experimentation on her.  Her brown eyes take on green specks as the miracle drug, ALZ112, is administered to her.  Everything goes from sparkling success to woefully wrong, and Bright Eyes is killed just as the board of the evil pharmaceutical company was being convinced by the passionate young scientist Will Rodman that ALZ112 is the cure for Alzheimer’s.  The murder of the chimp leaves her baby an orphan, and Will Rodman (James Franco) brings the baby home where he and his father, an Alzheimer's victim, care for it and teach it as they would a human child.  While not Rodman’s first mistake, this is a big one.  This is Caesar.
John Lithgow and baby Caesar

Caesar is a brilliant invention of screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, brought to magical life by Andy Serkis (previously not-exactly-seen as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy) and top-notch makeup and CGI artists.  This is what all that special effects technology is for, to aid in the story-telling so as to become inseparable from the narrative of an exciting and terribly sad tale of how human kind sets itself up for destruction.  Even the seemingly nice human, Franco’s Will Rodman, is a monster.  Those arrogant humans keep trying to excuse animal experimentation by making it about curing something terrifying like Alzheimer’s (think “Deep Blue Sea” with its super smart sharks), as if that far-off dream makes the torture of blatantly sentient beings acceptable.  There is an overwhelming sadness in this film, some of it quite unexpected.  Eventually betrayal and broken hearts make for the inevitable rebellion that arrogant humans do not expect.  Humankind’s hubris will be our own destruction.

I won’t spell out the plot points because I don’t want to spoil your enjoyment of this ride.  Despite my assumption from the trailers that I knew everything that would happen in the film, I did not.  This was much more fun than I expected since all I really “knew” was quite a long way into the future of our planet and species.  Our stupid species.  It seems that the moral of the story is, “What god hath wrought, let no man screw around with.” 

While I liked all the actors playing humans, the real kudos go to the hidden actors:  those playing apes in jumpsuits, the actors’ body language, eyes, facial expressions somehow magically transformed by make-up and CGI artists into totally real apes, orangutans, and chimpanzees. 
Andy Serkis is deep inside there as Caesar.
Andy Serkis is nothing short of brilliant as Caesar, from adolescent to adult, from adored to abandoned.  He is so hurt at his treatment by humans, even the man who called himself his “father,” that he must, when finally surrounded by his own kind, become the Alpha that the humans made him.  Karin Konoval becomes Maurice, the retired circus orangutan (perhaps named for Maurice Evans in the original film) who signs with Caesar in ape prison and has a funny “line” that gives Caesar, the son of Bright Eyes, a bright idea.  Terry Notary creates two separate chimps, Rocket and Bright Eyes; Richard Ridings plays the great ape Buck with fury and sensitivity; and Christopher Gordon is achingly menacing as Koba, a much abused and scarred lab ape who’s way smarter than humans can comprehend even before he’s given any drugs. 

As for those pesky humans,
John Lithgow is wonderful as Will Rodman’s father, an Alzheimer victim.  Clearly once a fine pianist, the disease stole that from him, until his son experiments on him.  Then the music pours out of him, for a while.  Lithgow does beautiful work with Franco and Serkis.

James Franco’s Will Rodman is sweet and loving, but ultimately Rodman does not take responsibility for his actions, and thus begins a series of events that leads to disaster.  It’s impossible to not like Will, especially with Franco’s warm eyes, filled with pain, longing, and love.  But even at the end, he has no idea what he’s done, nor does he regret it.
Caesar with James Franco as Will Rodman in the Redwoods.
Freida Pinto is very good as the intelligent, compassionate, practical, realistic veterinarian Caroline Aran.  Too bad Will doesn’t learn from her.

David Oyelowo seemed a bit young for his role as Steven Jacobs, CEO of the evil pharmaceuticals company, Gen-Sys, but he was suitably charming, smarmy, and cold-hearted.

Tyler Labine does good work as the primate handler in the Gen-Sys labs who becomes the accidental human experiment of the next generation of Will Rodman’s potential cure for Alzheimer’s — and then Patient Zero.

David Hewlett, an actor who plays whiny roles very well, is the Rodman’s neighbor Hunsiker, an airline pilot.  It’s not that he’s a bad man, he responds to his unconventional neighbors in a quite understandable manner throughout the film.  It’s just that he’s not a very good neighbor, and whatever he does turns out wrong. 

Brian Cox runs a prison deceptively called a “primate center” and hires rotten people to look after the apes, including his own nasty son.  Cox gives the easily caricatured John Landon dimensions, creating a less than conventional “villain” in this minor role.
Bad boy Tom.

And who do we get to hate as the lowest lowlife of the humans?  While there’s more than one qualified candidate for that status, a standout is Dodge Landon as played by Tom Felton, formerly that bad boy Draco Malfoy.  Landon is a grown-up scumbag we can only hope is torn to pieces by apes.  That was not a spoiler, not to worry.  Sweet revenge on Landon is much cleverer than such crude violence.

Some things never change:  We always root for the apes.  Who wasn’t on the side of King Kong or Mighty Joe Young, huge apes abused by humans while fighting for their loves and their lives?  It was only in the original “Planet of the Apes,” where the apes, orangutans and chimpanzees all behaved like nasty humans, that we could fear or despise them as the villains of a story.  The apes are only just beginning to rise here, and we’re still on their side.  Go Apes! 

For its entire two hours, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is engrossing, then thrilling, filling viewers like me with dread.  The ending leaves us with hope for some characters, despair for others, and a really nice-set up of spreading a virus in a visually clever way that is also believable in terms of plot.  Fans of the original 1968 film, fear not — it is referenced with reverence. 

~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer to hang out among some trees.


  1. Thanks DJ. I was going to give this a pass, but you make it sound much better than the TV previews.

  2. I almost passed it myself and am glad I did not. Note, I read some comments of people hating it, but there you go.