Saturday, January 14, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

The only movies in this series that I've seen previously are the original and Tim Burton's terrible remake. I like the first movie, but I didn't have much hope for another attempt to revive the concept, even if a story about how apes taking over the planet might actually happen is more interesting than just doing the first movie again. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed it, though. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is certainly flawed - the science is mostly pretty silly, and a lot of the human characters are generic summer movie tropes with nothing to them. But the movie does a few key things right, and the result is a perfectly solid popcorn movie, and the rare kind of one that actually has a soul.

The key to the whole movie is the realization of the character of Caesar, as performed by motion capture veteran Andy Serkis and animated by Weta. If they didn't have him as a central figure around which to base the story, they wouldn't have that much. But by establishing the character and using him so well, they turned what could have been a simple monster movie into something more complex and interesting. What's so different about the movie is that it's not clear what exactly we're rooting for. Normally that would be a problem, but here that conflict is an essential part of what makes the whole idea interesting. In the end, it's clear that the apes are not the bad guys - man's own hubris is. And while that's not exactly a new idea in the realm of science fiction, for once I didn't feel like an anti-science message was being rammed down my throat. It wasn't that we are wrong to try to advance medicine by playing god, it's that sometimes there are unforeseen consequences in the relentless pursuit of power and profit. And I was fine with that.

The reason the apes aren't outright good guys, besides the fact that their victory means the eventual extinction of humanity (as humans we are naturally inclined to be against the death of all humans), is James Franco's character, a scientist who's pushing hard on a drug that allows brain cells to repair themselves and could potentially cure victims of degenerative diseases like Alzheimer's, which his father has. I don't understand why John Lithgow was cast as the father when it's not a significantly meaty role and his mere appearance makes most people get ready to start laughing, but he helps humanize Franco, along with his girlfriend played by Freida Pinto, who pretty much only exists in the movie because they wanted a female character.

When one of the apes the drug is being tested on gives birth and Franco is forced to care for the baby, he both realizes that the drug has intelligence-improving as well as restorative potential and develops a strong bond with the ape. Their connection is what drives most of the drama and more heart-wrenching moments in the story, and Franco and Serkis make a good pair, even if only one of them is ever actually on screen. As Franco's reluctance to continue pursuing the drug grows in the face of the dollar signs growing in his boss' eyes, a more outright conflict develops as more apes get their cognitive abilities boosted and Caesar becomes a Spartacus-esque figure (sort of ironic given his name, I guess). It builds to a climax that is more complex than summer movies usually go for, and the ending does plenty to seed a sequel that could take place either soon after or much later, closer to the time of the "beginning" of the story. I'm not sure which I'd rather watch, but I will say I enjoyed this movie the most of three that I've actually seen. As dopey as some of the characters in Rise are, and as much as I didn't like it going back to the well on some of the original's famous lines, it's still overall a less silly and more competent film.

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