Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Saturday, July 29, 2017

RECENT WATCHES: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

Given the “Planet of the Apes” franchise's place in sci-fi cinema history, it was inevitable that Fox would attempt to reboot the series again following Tim Burton's unpopular 2000 attempt. Oddly, the idea seems to have originated outside of the company. Screenwriter-producer Rick Jaffa cooked up an inspired reinvention to the “Apes” series and sold it to the Fox. This new series would be about apes, not humans. After cycling through two titles – the unwieldy “Genesis: Apes” and the too generic “Rise of the Apes” – the project would hit theater screens as “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.” In an age of excessive spectacle, the film would win praise for putting characters and concepts above action. From the moment it arrived, the new “Apes” series has represented a more intellectual form of summer blockbuster.

The film begins, not in the distant future, but the modern day. Dr. Will Rodman is determined to cure Alzheimer's, a personal mission motivated by his father's illness. He tests the experimental compound on a chimpanzee, which immediately becomes more intelligence. The off-spring of Will's best student shows especially impressive skills. Named Caesar, Will and his recovering father treat the chimp like family. Despite his intelligence, Caesar is separated from his human family and placed in a cruel ape preserve. There, the hyper-capable ape sees the way man abuses his kind and begins to plot an uprising, using the same drug to make the other apes as smart as him.

Seeing as how the apes were always the most memorable characters in the classic series, building a reboot around Caesar is an inspired move. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” also does away with the time travel gimmicktry. There's nothing like the baffling pseudo-twist that concluded Tim Burton's film here. The reboot draws inspiration from  “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes.” However, by setting the story in our modern day and putting a more grounded spin on the concept, “Rise” becomes a thought provoking post-human blockbuster. His family may treat him kindly but even they see Caesar as less than human, despite his intellect. When faced with the cruelty of the rest of the world, the inevitable revolt seems perfectly justified. “Rise” puts the audience in the shoes – or bare feet, as it were – of animals too often abused by mankind.

It's a deeply empathetic approach and it wouldn't have worked if Caesar wasn't a compelling character. “Rise's” special effects were widely praised upon release. It's been six years and the CGI has aged a little. The eyes and faces aren't quite right. But Caesar and his simian friends are still convincing, expressive creations. The heart of the character is ultimately more important. Andy Serkis' motion capture performance is one for the ages. Caesar's reaction to seeing a dog on a leash, while he himself is leashed, is touching. The audience feels his pain, when he's separated from his human family. When Caesar finally speaks – screaming “NO!,” as foretold in the original series – the emotion is overwhelming. Caesar may be a CGI chimpanzee but he's a fully formed character, beautifully brought to life by Serkis and the effects team.

Filling the movie entirely with apes probably wouldn't have been feasible for a franchise-launcher like this. (Though the movie, admirably, still features long stretches without any humans on-screen.) Luckily, the human cast is pretty good too. James Franco can be a love-it-or-hate-it screen presence. He doesn't bring anything special to the role of Will but he's not unlikable either. His romance with Freida Pinto's nurse isn't much to write about though. Better is John Lithgow as Franco's father. Lithgow makes the character's dementia heartbreaking. His struggles are tear-jerking, Lithgow's performance being especially vulnerable, but never become sappy. Other familiar faces appear as the film's trio of villains. Tom Felton is entertainingly broad as the cruel zookeeper who tortures Caesar. Brian Cox is fittingly callous as the ape center's owner. David Oyelowo is a bit unbelievable as the crooked business executive that unwittingly makes the ape's rebellion possible.

As far as big budget genre films go, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is pretty low-key. The first hour is almost entirely character based, save for a somewhat extended sequence of Bright Eyes attempting to escape the research compound. There's very little action until the last third, when Caesar escapes and engineers his primate insurrection. The apes seize the bars of their cages, using them as spears, piercing police cars. The film's climax is a spectacular finale on the Golden Gate Bridge. There's plenty of car crashes, eventually leading to an impressive scene where the apes are shot at with a machine gun. Probably the coolest moment involves a gorilla leaping into a flying helicopter, bringing the vehicle down with his brute strength. It's not the biggest summer tent pole action scene I've seen but is thrilling precisely because you care about the characters so much.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is sprinkled with callbacks to the original. Caesar's mother is named Bright Eyes, just like Charlton Heston was on the original “Planet.” A half-completed jigsaw puzzle of the Statue of Liberty puts in a brief appearance. Two of Heston's most notorious lines are quoted, in amusingly hammy ways. The film also looks toward the future, setting up a sequel with a human-hating ape partner of Caesar and a homosapien devastating virus sweeping the globe during the credits. It speaks to the reboot's overall quality that these callbacks and set-ups are neither too cute nor distracting. The film is a very clever reinvention of the series, bolstered by sturdy writing and direction. Yet its greatest success in rooted in its stunning central performance. [8/10]

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