Saturday, August 6, 2011

Review: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a remarkable achievement

Film Rating: A-

My favorite episode of The Simpsons is “A Fish Called Selma,” a 1996 installment from the show’s seventh season.  It’s the one where has-been movie star Troy McClure, voiced by Phil Hartman, marries Marge’s sister Selma as a publicity stunt to further his stalled career, and it’s my favorite episode because McClure winds up starring in a Planet of the Apes Broadway musical.  From the “Dr. Zaius” song to McClure singing “I hate every ape I see, from Chimpan-a to Chimpan-z,” this is just a note-perfect, hilarious parody, one that works because it lovingly pokes fun at how incredibly silly the entire Apes premise really is.  Film concepts don’t get much more ridiculous than a planet full of intelligent, talking chimpanzees, and that makes the franchise ripe for spoofing.

The concept does not seem to lend itself well to a serious, introspective, and thoughtful look at how the apes wound up conquering our planet, and I bring up the Simpsons comparison to highlight exactly what a remarkable achievement Rise of the Planet of the Apes truly is.  Twisting Apes lore for comedic purposes isn’t exactly a stretch, as the Simpsons demonstrated, but crafting an intelligent and emotional drama - all from the Apes’ perspective, mind you - has got to be one of the toughest challenges a summer movie has ever taken on.  I’m floored to report that this new prequel rises (no pun intended) to that challenge spectacularly.

More after the jump...

Writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa have crafted a wonderful story that uses realistic, modern scientific dilemmas - the main human character, a scientist named Will (James Franco), is trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father suffers from - to set the ape revolution in motion.  By testing his cure on apes, Will creates Caesar, a hyper-intelligent chimpanzee, and I love how the film illustrates that the entire ape revolution originated from the complex friendship between a man and an ape.  Will only wants to protect Caesar, but there really isn’t a place in human society for a primate with human intelligence; the ultimate purpose of the ape revolution is not, therefore, about vengeful conquest, but instead about carving out a place in that society.     

Make no mistake - James Franco may get top billing, but Caesar the ape is the film’s main character, and any discussion of the film will inevitably start and end with the actor who brings Caesar to life: Andy Serkis.  Like all the apes in the film, Caesar is a CGI creation, but Serkis plays the role through performance capture technology, the same effect used when Serkis portrayed Gollum in The Lord of the Rings or the title character in King Kong.  Serkis is the king of his craft at this point, and with all due respect to Gollum, Caesar is his best performance yet.  It’s a completely silent role, yet Serkis conveys more through facial expressions and body language than talkative human characters do in most movies.  Caesar’s journey is a complex one; his transformation from fun loving baby ape to fearless, brilliant warlord isn’t marked by one singular event.  His motives are never simple, nor is his morality black and white.  Serkis portrays all of this with flawless nuance, and I have no qualms in labeling it the best performance of the summer movie season, if not the year so far.

Yet Serkis couldn’t achieve this without the artists at Weta Digital; all of the many apes featured in the film are CGI creations, but it’s impossible to tell this by watching the movie.  This is the most realistic CGI I’ve ever seen, even better than Avatar or Transformers, and I’d go so far as to add that this is the best utilization of CGI effects yet seen in a live-action film.  Creating one fascinating character like Caesar is certainly a monumental achievement, but it’s been done before, particularly in other Serkis performances like Gollum.  Crafting an entire cast of all-CGI characters that have distinctive personalities and traits?  That is truly revolutionary, and it’s what Weta has accomplished. 

Caesar leads an entire band of apes, and the second act is primarily focused on introducing us to these characters, while continuing to further Caesar’s own arc.  Not all the apes have names, but by the time the revolution actually begins, you’ll be able to recognize at lest six or seven of them as distinct and vivid characters.  When one of the apes dies, it’s a big, emotional moment, one that really hits the viewer where it hurts.  This should always be the goal of CGI, to tell a story that couldn’t be told without the use of computers, and since Rise of the Planet of the Apes does this from the opening moments to the very end, it should be considered a landmark moment in the history of special effects.

In fact, the CGI ape cast actually overshadows the human characters.  Much of this is simply a function of the narrative - this is a story about the apes, not the people - but some members of the human cast are little more than caricatures.  Brian Cox and Tom Felton (i.e. Draco Malfoy) are the most problematic as the sadistic owners of an ape ‘santuary.’  They simply exist to be ‘evil,’ and we are given no reason to empathize with or understand them.  They are just the ‘bad guys,’ and Cox and Felton aren’t asked to do anything more than be their normal, villainous selves.  The same can be said of a few other characters in the film, and it’s a bit disappointing when you consider how much nuance and thought can be found in the rest of the movie.

James Franco fares much better, thankfully; since his quest for an Alzheimer’s cure is driven by a need to save his ailing father, he is 100% sympathetic throughout, and Franco does a tremendous job acting across from Caeser who, as a CGI creation, was never actually on set.  Franco’s character has a girlfriend, played by Frieda Pinto, who is completely useless, serving no purpose in the story.  She also appears so infrequently that her presence is never much of a problem.

Rupert Wyatt’s direction is confident and sharp; visually, this is a beautiful film, and not just because of the awe-inspiring special effects.  Wyatt, who has only ever directed one other film, also proves himself a brilliant action director; once the ape revolution starts, he stages several thrilling sequences, one of which, set on the Golden Gate Bridge, stands as a highlight of this entire summer movie season.  Wyatt even manages to include several applause-worthy, crowd pleasing moments - such as the first time an ape rides a horse - that work without betraying the film’s serious, thoughtful tone.

The film also does an expert job opening the door for some sequels; though the title promises a rise of the entire ‘planet of the apes,’ the film actually only goes so far; at the end, the apes have only just started their revolution, which is an excellent choice.  It’s clear that making this story plausible and realistic takes time, and by spending an entire movie simply establishing the origins of the revolution, they’ve crafted a unique experience that is moving and thoughtful.  Considering what a silly premise this franchise is based on, that’s a bit of a miracle.

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