Rise of the Planet of the Apes

| August 5, 2011

As James Marsh’s underappreciated documentary, Project Nim, has shown, chimps are much like Americans: They’re as cute as babies but grow up to be large, intimidating creatures. But unlike us lazy statesmen, who’d much rather conquer a bag of potato chips and the living room couch, our hairier ancestors are more concerned with becoming the kings of their domain. But who would’ve thought that they’d try to take over human society? That’s exactly the scenario explored in the gazillionth adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s (now famous) novel, La Planète des singes. Strangely enough, it’s also the biggest hit this year.
Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes opens with a scenic aerial shot of a forest. Here, matured apes are being captured by a group of armed poachers—among them, Subject #9. The primate is quickly shipped over to the States where she finds herself in Genesys’, a big-name drug company run by the money-hungry Steve Jacobs (David Oyelowo), research facility. Just in time for a major breakthrough, the anthropoid becomes the first of many apes used to test a new form of neurogenesis, ALZ 112, which has the potential to cure Alzheimer’s (amongst a few other diseases). Conducted by Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who, unlike his boss, cares about the animals, the project turns out to be a success and in a matter of weeks, Subject #9’s cognitive ability shoots up and she develops incredible sign-language vocabularies. But whilst presenting his research to a committee of industry figureheads, hoping they’d green light human testing, Rodman is interrupted by the distressed chimpanzee, which spontaneously goes berserk. Hailed as a side-effect of 112, the subjects are put down—crushing Will’s dream of curing his father, Charles (John Lithgow), of advanced Alzheimer’s.
Though in a case of fortune being mistaken for tragedy, Rodman discovers that Subject #9’s outburst was to defend her newborn chimp, which the researcher dubs “Caesar (Andy Serkis was used for the motion-capture technology)” and, in secrecy, takes home “for a few days.” Though none can resist those furry little cheeks and days turn to months and months to years. But, much to Rodman’s surprise, Caesar comes prepackaged with the ALZ 112, which he inherited from his mother, and at age three, the chimp is already an expert on speech and problem-solving. This whilst Will’s friendship to a gorgeous primatologist named Caroline (Freida Pinto) explodes into a full-blown relationship. It’s just too bad that despite her supposed expertise, she doesn’t know much about man’s distant cousin . . . especially considering that Caesar, who Animal Control banishes to a shoddy primate facility, becomes bent on building an empire of apes to rain hell down on San Francisco and earn back their basic right—freedom.
Contrary to the usual late-summer blockbusters, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a thinking man’s film. Undeterred by its stupid title, this actioner raises plenty of philosophical and ethical questions, namely through its lack of a clear-cut antagonist. Those who’ve only seen the trailer are inclined to think that the apes are monsters, but the film establishes a number of potent relationships between man and ape that prove otherwise. In this 105 minute sci-fi epic, the primates—Caesar being the definite standout—exhibit genuine emotion. Throughout the film, the adoptee questions his role as Will’s “pet,” but never abandons him, remaining loyal even after the revolt has begun. Thus, we need to ask ourselves: Are Will and the humans really the heroes here? We started the entrapment of the apes and reduced an intelligent species into drug-hosts. Are Caesar and the chimps wrong for wanting the freedom that we take for granted? That, my friends, is a debate rarely mentioned in Tim Burton’s atrocious 2001 remake.
But Wyatt, who previously helmed The Escapist and Subterrain, is better equipped for a series like this. There’s no doubt that Burton is a talented filmmaker; however, Wyatt’s direction hits a series of high notes (albeit one not quite-so). His writing team, which consists of Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, manages to make the film entertaining for the diehards of the franchise while making it accessible to those not as familiar with Planet of the Apes. The one point that the screenwriters do stumble on is the romance. Will and Caroline’s dynamic isn’t as interesting as it could’ve been and instead it caters towards PG-13 obliviousness. At least the casting’s spot-on, because even if Caroline can’t be an impactful partner, it helps that the actress who plays her is undeniably beautiful. Although Franco, who is sure to appeal to the ladies, doesn’t need the added appeal, as his character is already a likeable protagonist. And, as expected, the special-effects are the star of the show.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes utilizes the same motion-capture technology as James Cameron’s Avatar. Serkis, who’s known for playing Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, lends another brilliant motion-capture performance. From beginning to end, Serkis’ facial expressions and realistic movements make Caesar an organic screen-presence and not just bland CGI. The action-packed climax, set on the Golden Gate Bridge, is also well-done and rewards the audience’s more testosterone-driven audience members with an ample amount of shooting and explosions.
Wyatt and his producers are already in talks to make a sequel (which is hinted at during the credits) and that’s fine by me. Rise of the Planet of the Apes can easily be compared to Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, as both films take popular stories and retell them as astutely as possible. And in the middle of summer, you’d be hard-pressed to find cinema as sophisticated as this. It does something that most big-budget films don’t. It mixes the existential questions of indie filmmaking and the high-octane visuals that Hollywood has come to love, and I, personally, am anxious to reunite with my ape overlords.

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