Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Who hasn’t ever heard of Planet of the Apes?  It’s one of the most famous, and most parodied and referenced, films of all time.   Even if you haven’t seen it yourself you certainly know the final reveal scene (“YOU MANIACS!!!”).   The film was so successful that it spawned four sequels, with varying levels of quality (Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes), as well as two TV shows.  Knowing that Hollywood loves stealing and reusing ideas it should be no surprise that a remake would eventually be made.   And 20th Century Fox did just that in 2001 with a Tim Burton directed, Marky Mark Mark Wahlberg starring movie that was supposed to be the first in a new series of films.   Except that it was awful, had a bizarre ending (Though it’s been stated the ending would have been addressed in the aborted sequel) and pretty much universally panned.  Fox quickly decided to sweep the franchise under rug following its release.

But bad ideas, such as remaking a beloved movie franchise, never truly die so it was just a matter of time before Fox tried again. Hoping that ten years would have been enough time for Americans to forget the previous failed attempt (Spoiler: It wasn’t) they green lit another remake.  Actually in per-production it started as being a prequel to the original film, but seeing as the films work on a Stable Time Travel Loop it’s actually impossible for a true prequel to exist within the original continuity without it being a remake of “Escape from...” and “Conquest of…”. Instead the studio decided to change it into a reimagining (Sort of) of those two films to act as the first in a new series of movies….or at least I assume they did.  Understand this: this cannot be a true prequel to the original film!   It has to be its own continuity because it can’t fit into established cannon.  Okay?

Originally titled “Caesar” (Likely changed because the studio feared no one would go see a Planet of the Apes movie that didn’t have “Planet of the Apes” in the title) Rise of the Planet of the Apes was directed by Rupert Wyatt, and as far as I can tell his only other film was The Escapist which I’ve never heard of let alone seen.   Still the fact that this isn’t a straight remake greatly helps the possibility of this movie not being a disaster.   All remakes of classic films are bad ideas in principle but reimaging of classic films are only mostly all bad ideas in principle.  It’s a clear step up!

Full review after the jump.

Seconds before Caesar goes crazy and rips Franco's balls off
Will Rodman (James Franco) is a brilliant scientist who has been working on a retrovirus that can possibly work as a cure for Alzheimer’s disease.  He’s been testing the virus on chimpanzees, the most successful subject being a female named Bright Eyes who displays near-human level intelligence.  As Rodman prepares to show the animal off to his company’s board of directors an unforeseen incident gets the entire project shut down.  However it turns out that Bright Eyes had a baby, a chimp eventually named Caesar (Andy Serkis), and Rodman reluctantly takes it home with him.  He soon discovers that Caesar has inherited his mother’s high intelligence, probably to a greater degree.  As Will raises the chimp as his own over the next few years he has no idea that he has just started the single most devastating revolution in the history of the human race.

It needs to be said that Andy Serkis kicks all sorts of ass with his portrayal of Caesar.   CGI-characters (Which they use instead of makeup as they had in the past POTA films) are notoriously hard to sell as real character in an otherwise live action film (See: Jar Jar Binks.  Better yet, don't) but Serkis somehow manages to be the most compelling and emotionally driven character in this film using almost nothing other than body language and facial expressions.  This is obviously also equally attributed to the director and the computer imagery which both would have had to be really well done in order to make sure nothing came off as cheesy or out of place.  The fact is that Serkis’ performance is head and shoulders above his cast mates and this is easily the best such performance since Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy...who, incidentally, was also played by Serkis.  Huh.  Aside from the great acting Caesar is a wonderful character that is a fascinating combination of sensitivity, determination, resourcefulness and kindness.  It’s weird to say it but he’s one of the better protagonists of a film we’ve seen all year.

"Eek eek oop eek"
Translation: Caesar want milkshake.  You want one too?

The rest of the cast is fine, though no one really sticks out.   Or perhaps I should say everyone else is overshadowed by Caesar?  I will say that James Franco is pretty decent here, which actually surprised me.  Now you may argue that as an Oscar nominated actor Franco is one of the best thespians in Hollywood today and your point would indeed be valid, I suppose, in the same way that Mo’Nique is one of Hollywood’s greatest actresses but I still maintain that I have rarely seen a truly good performance out of Franco, with perhaps the exception of his role in Milk (No, I haven’t seen 127 Hours).   My point is that Franco did a good job at making me believe that he was playing a character in a film rather than being James Franco reading the lines of a character in a film which means he’s come a long damn way since I first saw him in Spider-Man (Which he was dreadful in).  I am also glad to see Frieda Pinto in more films since her debut in Slumdog Millionaire a few years back.

The plot of the film works well enough that it will keep you engaged, but really it is Caesar that will keep you truly emotionally invested.  Sadly you have to ignore the horrifyingly stupid and the cartoonishly evil characters running around in order to suspend your disbelief.  But even with the familiar caricatures that pop up here and there it’s an emotional ride and if you’re not rooting for the apes to overthrow humanity than you may have no heart…or else you’re biased against anything non-human, which actually makes perfect sense now that I think about it.  There’s actually not that much wrong with the film side from the above hiccup.   The only other thing that might be a misstep is the frequent references/nods and winks to the original film (Some of which are cool but others came off out of place and forced) and all the set up for a sequel.  While keeping your door open in a film like this one where a sequel is desired does make sense it’s a gamble that doesn’t always pay off since they had no way of knowing if the studio would green light  such a thing (This is what happened to the POTA remake in 2001).  Luckily they handled it better than they could have and the movie has performed above expectations so a sequel is indeed probable, though whether it has anything to do with this film is anyone’s guess at this point.   Also though the computer generated imagery was cleanly well done it still looks very much so like computer generated imagery.   I guess we're still not at the point where CGI fits seamlessly with live action in every film.

This scene is so touching it almost makes me forget how viscous chimps are
Almost
Bottom line this film is superior to Tim Burton’s ten year old fiasco in every possible way.  It’ s more engaging, it’s more fun, is has a more interesting main character, and it feel like a more appropriate successor to the original films.  It’s not the best film ever made surely, but as far as remakes/reboots go this is up there with the likes of Batman Begins and the 2009 Star Trek movie.   I’ve noticed a lot of summer action films have been pretty good this year and I have to say that this one is no exception.  If you’re a fan of the original films give this one a shot since it probably won’t hurt your childhood memories the way 2001 movie did.   If you like films that feature a rise against oppression this is a fun twist of an old genre.  And if you liked 1960s era DC Comics when every issue of any title sold twice as well when the cover featured an ape you’ve probably watched this flick on opening night.

Pictured: 40% of all Silver Age Comics
 
I give Rise of the Planet of the Apes 4 Adorable Pandas Damn Dirty Apes out of 5.


Pros 

-The main character is well written and expertly acted…somehow

-The plot is very fun

Cons 

-Some characters are a bit hard to shallow

-References to past films and set up for future films may get a bit annoying 

-CGI restraints make the apes look obviously fake

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