Hollywood has a tendency to revisit the same franchises over and over again, so when the Rise of the Planet of the Apes was announced I was admittedly not very excited. If you’ve seen Tim Burton’s 2001 flick, you can’t really blame me. But then, in May when I was in the theater for some long-forgotten super-hero movie, and the trailer for Rise came on, I was genuinely excited.
The plot isn’t that different from any of the old films, but acts as a bit of a back story for the entire franchise. (Think Batman Begins.) James Franco plays a young and talented doctor who is searching for the cure to Alzheimer’s – motivated by the fact that his own father (John Lithgow) is suffering late stages of the disease. He develops a virus that not only stops the onset, but actually helps sufferers increase in intelligence – side effect? Of course this is a Sci-Fi flick, it causes chimps (we test everything on them, don’t we?) to get really smart, really fast. If you’ve seen the trailers, none of this is news: The chimps get smart, and *SPOILER* Rise up.
So in 2011, how do you revisit a campy 60’s B (or C if you’re talking about the sequels) movie? First, you dump the latex chimp suits and cast Andy Serkis as the lead role Caesar – leader of the Apes. The motion capture format used for Gollum and King Kong has been nearly perfected, and to see how far they’ve come over at WETA is really quite amazing. After watching the film for the first time (yes I went twice) I told my brother that Andy Serkis out-acted James Franco – and I wasn’t trying to be rude, the guy has invented a new way of acting, and the results are astounding. The facial expressions, movements, etc. are decidedly ape-like, and would look, I imagine, as perfect as if you had an actual ape doing all of the things you could never get one to do. How the Apes can be simultaneously terrifying and lovable is a trick that director Rupert Wyatt pulls off without hitch – I caught myself thinking on more than one occasion, Who are we supposed to be rooting for here?
The movie isn’t perfect, of course. I’m not sure if the apes were supposed to out-act the humans. Most of the people’s roles seemed a tad stiff. Freida Pinto seems wasted (but beautiful) as Franco’s love interest chimp veterinarian, who you would think on at least one occasion could offer some information/advice/expertise on apes. Brian Cox is the owner/operator of an ape ‘shelter’. His role has him looking grim and throwing out some warnings about apes sticking to their own kind. His son is Tom Felton (AKA Draco Malfoy) who works in the ape shelter and is a torturous jail guard. You couldn’t create a more caricatured guard if you tried, and so I suppose Felton plays it perfectly. With the exception of Franco, the humans are either torturing the apes, or trying to use them to make money.
These people aren’t really problems for the film, in fact they act as inspiration for the rise, and in a way, we can’t blame the apes for wanting a better life for themselves.
I do remember watching the original, and cheering like crazy for Charlton and his compadres when they finally beat those ‘damn dirty apes’. This time, the roles are reversed, and in the sequels (because there will be sequels) I wonder how and who I’ll be cheering for. As a sci-fi film this could be a warning of genetic engineering, animal testing, etc. Things we’ve seen before. But where it really works is in the relationships between Franco and Caesar, and (I’m just gonna c0me out and say it) between the apes themselves. Buck, the huge silverback gorilla, can communicate more in a few grunts and head bobs, than Thor or the Green Lantern could in a huge voice-over. Caesar and the resident Orang-utan have a couple of great sign-language conversations that are a joy to behold.
The highlight of the film was when, for the first time, Caesar finds his voice. After being tortured by Felton, he stands up and shouts, “NO!” My reaction was one of shock and pleasure, but the audience reaction was summed up perfectly by someone sitting farther down our row, who shouted out, “Ho-oly Shi-it!” It’s moments like that that tell you a story is working.
For fans of the original, there are plenty of references, inside jokes, winks and nudges. There are also a number of hints as to possible sequels opportunities. If you haven’t got out to this film yet, see it. Highly Recommended!