Thrilling, Marvelous ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’
CHICAGO – “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is spectacular entertainment, a perfect capper to the blockbuster season that is arguably the most purely enjoyable film of the warmer months of 2011. Rupert Wyatt’s highly-anticipated prequel is an old-fashioned piece of sci-fi escapism made with some of the revolutionary new toys available to special effects artists. The biggest surprise in a long time simply delivers what it promises and then goes way beyond that to become one of the most memorable summer thrill rides of the last few years.
Perfectly meshing with the mythology (complete with beautiful in-references that only real fans will catch) that technically began with the 1963 novel by Pierre Boulle but really took off with the Charlton Heston sci-fi classic “Planet of the Apes” in 1968, this prequel attempts to answer some of the questions presented by the beloved twist ending of the original film. How did Earth become overrun by talking apes? Where did it all begin?
It turns out that the end of humanity started in San Francisco. That’s where our story begins with a scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) working on a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease (which afflicts his father played well by John Lithgow) by experimenting on apes. The first test backfires horribly but leads to an offspring that Will rescues from the facility and raises as his own pet/child named Caesar (played in an amazing bit of motion capture by Andy Serkis, who did the same thing for Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Photo credit: Fox
It turns out that the impact of his experimentation can be felt even more strongly in the next generation and Caesar is not your average ape. He not only learns sign language but develops an incredible range of human emotion, expressions, and needs. When his protective animal nature gets the best of him, Caesar is forced into an ape habitat, ripped from his family and those he thought loved him. Of course, Caesar is too smart for his captors and the final act of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” becomes the action movie heavily advertised this season.
Yes, almost everything you’ve seen in the omnipresent ads for “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” happens awfully close to the end credits. The first act of the film features Caesar learning about the beauty of the world, whether it’s an amazing sequence in which he scales the Redwoods or one where he longingly looks out his attic room window at the kids playing next door. The middle act, in which Caesar is betrayed and held prisoner, is the most remarkable in that it’s virtually dialogue-free as our ape protagonist (and he really is the lead of the film more than Franco) assimilates to what is essentially a prison. It’s ironic that director Rupert Wyatt helmed a prison break movie called “The Escapist” since a large chunk of his follow-up plays not unlike “The Great Ape Escape.”
Franco and co-star Freida Pinto (beautiful, but the least necessary supporting character of the season) wisely take a back seat to the ape action at the heart of this great film. First and foremost, Caesar is a completely genuine, completely believable creation from the amazing WETA – the most remarkable single creation in the history of CGI. There is not one shot of an actual primate in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” and yet you feel for Caesar through the melding of amazing special effects and Serkis’ supporting performance through motion-capture. This is no mere cartoon and, in many ways, it’s a more notable visual effects achievement than “Avatar.” I believed Caesar and I’m the kind of cynical critic often looking for the strings and keenly aware of how movies get made. But I bought into the character of an increasingly-intelligent ape. I cared what happened to him. That’s an amazing accomplishment.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Photo credit: Fox
Great special effects and the best motion capture performance to date would be reason alone to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” but the film wouldn’t be the great piece of work it is without stellar direction from Rupert Wyatt, a man who may be new to the game but could teach a few veterans how to pace a summer movie. This thing never falters. It never sags. Yes, there are a few cheesy bits and some undefined supporting characters, but they’re so quickly discarded in favor of what works that you don’t mind. Nothing lingers. The movie flies thanks in no small part to incredible editing and stellar cinematography from the great Andrew Lesnie (“The Lord of the Rings”), who uses the trees and architecture of San Francisco brilliantly. And, unlike so many talky summer action movies, it doesn’t weigh itself down with exposition, choosing to tell its story visually. You could watch “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” without sound and still marvel at the storytelling. How many summer movies can you say that about?
I remember as a kid going to the big new summer movie of the week just wanting to see something new; to see something I hadn’t seen before. That sense of wonder has been lost in the years where every film needs to be a lowest common denominator product that not only doesn’t try anything new but consciously goes for the familiar to try to remind ticket buyers of something they liked before. I felt that wonder again at “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” Feel it for yourself.