Get your stinking paws on these damn awesome apes ~ That Movie Blogger Fella

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Get your stinking paws on these damn awesome apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
My rating:

The Planet of the Apes film franchise is a curious one to revive. It originated from one classic movie and four less-than-classic sequels that stretched from 1968 to 1973, and was briefly revived in a 2001 Tim Burton-helmed remake that no one liked. (Including myself; it solidified my opinion of Mark Wahlberg as a painfully dull leading man, and the "twist" ending was insanely stupid.) The remake is now seen in hindsight as one of those big summer blockbusters that made decent money but no one thinks highly of, and is best remembered as the least Burton-like movie Burton ever made. So the news of a brand new prequel-cum-reboot of the series was largely greeted with a resounding "meh" - and in fact, even after having watched it, I'm still wondering who's that one Hollywood executive who loves Planet of the Apes so much that he's been trying to revive it for over a decade.

Whoever he is, he can now give himself a hearty pat on the back. Nice work, dude! This one is good.

Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer's, whose research suffers a major setback after a lab specimen chimpanzee goes berserk. His boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts him down and disposes of the rest of the chimps, but Will manages to bring home a newborn baby chimp to live with him and his Alzheimer's-ridden father (John Lithgow). The chimp - named Caesar (Andy Serkis) - soon develops heightened intelligence and awareness from his exposure to Will's experimental drug, and the years pass as he lives with his surrogate family that later includes Will's girlfriend, veterinarian Caroline (Frieda Pinto). But even as Will attempts to continue his drug research, Caesar grows moody and temperamental, and Will is forced to give him up to a primate facility. Bullied by the other apes, mistreated by a cruel keeper (Tom Felton), and feeling abandoned by his adopted father, Caesar decides to take his destiny - and that of his fellow apes - in his own hands.

Am I the only critic who sees the similarities between this movie and X-Men: First Class? They're pretty obvious; the first big one is that both are prequels to established stories. There are absolutely no surprises here; everything from its ending to the beats it goes through to get there can be predicted from the trailer. We know things will start idyllically, with Caesar growing up happily under Will's care, we know Will has the best of intentions in trying to cure his father of Alzheimer's, we know Caesar will suffer the cruel treatment of callous and dickish humans, and we know this will drive Caesar to lead an ape rebellion. Still, everything was well done enough to be reasonably engaging - and unlike X-Men: First Class, it did not feel like a retread of material less than a decade old.

Then that scene came up. If you've watched it, you'll know the one I'm talking about, but if you haven't I wouldn't dream of spoiling it; although some dude on had already spoiled it for me, it lost none of its power. It's an amazing and awesome moment, and I'm now considering writing a year-end Top 10 Greatest Scenes of 2011 post just to include it. That scene came right at the start of the third act, and totally kicked the rest of the movie into high gear for me. This would be where what started out as a fast-paced drama turns into an all-out action movie, where the apes wreak havoc on San Francisco in what seems like a chaotic rampage but is in fact a well-orchestrated revolt by Caesar. And it is plenty awesome, but it owes its awesomeness to that one moment that set the ape uprising into motion. It sure made me want to jump out of my seat and Fight the Power! (Disclaimer: I may be somewhat biased, due to my own recent experience at civil disobedience.)

The other biggest similarity to the Marvel mutant movie is the fact that in its depiction of an inter-species conflict, it quite clearly takes the side against good ol' homo sapiens. Will, his father and Caroline are the nice ones, but even they still treat Caesar like a beloved pet rather than an equal. And the bad ones - who comprise the money-grubbing Jacobs, the brutish primate facility keeper played by Tom Felton (who is just Draco Malfoy all over again), and even an asshole neighbour of Will's (David Hewlett) - are little more than caricatures. In fact, a case may be made - and AV Club has already made it - that this really isn't a story about humans, and that Will isn't actually the main character even if he seems like it in the beginning. The real protagonist, the real hero of the movie, is in fact Caesar.

Which may explain why James Franco's performance is curiously inert, and not at all indicative of his talent; even during the poignant scenes with his father, he keeps underplaying it. And there's also Brian Cox as the manager of the primate facility who literally doesn't do anything, not even to play another asshole who mistreats the apes. The unimpressive human performances would have sunk the movie, were it not for Andy Serkis' motion-captured performance as a super-intelligent chimpanzee revolutionary leader. Caesar is an amazing creation, able to convey innocence, fear, anguish, pride, defiance - the full gamut of emotion. I hesitate to call it human emotion, because one of the themes of the story is that Caesar is every bit as sentient and sapient as a human, but he is decidedly not human; he is an utterly unique (and frankly, alien) intelligent creature, which even the well-intentioned Will fails to recognize. That the film succeeds at conveying this, and in the process creating a hero that wins the audience's sympathies handily, is probably its greatest triumph.

It also succeeds at making the other apes recognizable characters - the orangutan who is the first ape Caesar befriends, the gorilla whose loyalty he wins, the alpha chimp whose position he usurps, and the much-abused and traumatised chimp who is subjected to the drug experiments. All of whom are a lot more sympathetic than the human characters. Yes, AV Club was right, this is a story about the gradual obsolescence of the human race and its replacement by a species more worthy of existing. It's also the sleeper blockbuster hit of the summer, which makes it a pretty damn subversively smart movie. (Barring a few plot holes here and there.) To me, all it needed to earn my 4-star rating is to pass the franchise-starter test, which is to make me want a sequel. And I do. I want to see what Caesar does next, and I hope we get to see it real soon.

NEXT REVIEW: Cowboys and Aliens
Expectations: considerably lowered