Friday, September 23, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

We don’t seem to be getting a lot of original stories as of late. A lot of films seem to be based off of books, based off of comic books, based off an older movie, and even a few based off of TV shows. These are given labels like remake, reboot, and the nebulous label of “reimagining.” Batman was rebooted with Batman Begins(2005) and was such a success that it will be a long time before we accept a non-Christopher Nolan Batman. There was a recent 2010 remake of a 1981 fantasy movie, Clash of the Titans, by the same title. Director Tim Burton attempted to remake the 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes in 2001, which had a pretty negative critical reception. There were five original Planet of the Apes movies, followed by a live-action television series and an animated series. This was later followed by the Tim Burton monstrosity. Realistically, the first Planet of the Apesmovie starring Charlton Heston was the only good one of the lot, but the franchise has made a significant cultural impact. We seem to revere the original Planet of the Apeswith some degree of reverence and respect. This is why, when 20th Century Fox produced yet another reboot entitled Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) directed by Rupert Wyatt, some of us cringed.
Will Rodman (James Franco) has a personal stake for developing a cure for Alzheimer’s disease; his afflicted father Charles (John Lithgow). When a chimpanzee shows remarkable progress with the latest strain of the cure, Will presents his findings to his boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), to show that the drug is ready for human trials. During the presentation, the chimp goes on a rampage and the Board of Directors pulls the plug on the program. It’s not until after the other test chimps were put down that they realized the rampaging chimp was protecting her infant. Unwilling to put down an infant chimp, Will takes it home to keep it safe. Charles has taken to reciting Shakespeare and incidentally names the infant Cesar. As Cesar grows up, it becomes evident that he has inherited the enhanced intelligence from his mother. Cesar reaches an unprecedented level of cognition and intelligence, and begins to question his own identity, wondering whether or not he is a pet. Will uses the cure he developed on his father, who ends up making a remarkable, but temporary, recovery. Will shows Jacobs the results and research begins again. Charles’ condition worsens and Cesar attacks a neighbor who is angry at Charles for attempting to drive the neighbor’s car. Cesar is sent to a primate facility by court order. Here he interacts with other apes for the first time in his life, and suffers some animal abuse by Dodge Landon (Tom Felton), one of the facility's workers. The abuse that Cesar endures causes him to resent some humans; he ends up leading a mass exodus and revolution against the humans.
If you look at any movie poster or website about Rise of the Planet of the Apes you see “Starring James Franco” plastered all over the place. Whoever did that can’t possibly have seen the movie. James Franco is really more of a supporting character. The main character is without a doubt Cesar. The motion capture for Cesar is done by none other than Andy Serkis; a phenomenal actor who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Kong in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake. Cesar’s character is actually quite complex and interesting. You can really empathize with what Cesar is going through, and relate to him when he’s finally had enough and chooses to revolt. Cesar isn’t out to kill the humans; he’s fighting for his freedom. He stops some of this fellow apes from killing some of the innocent bystanders, and he still has a relationship with Will. Cesar has to be one of the more interesting movie characters this summer. This is Cesar’s story, not Will Rodman’s.
It seems to me that the central theme in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of loss and abandonment. There is the often overused “man playing God” kind of theme where humans try to control the forces of nature and it blows up in their faces. Frankenstein (1931) and Jurassic Park (1993) are both examples of that theme. There’s also the premise of using potentially dangerous animals to try to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease; that is exactly the same premise in Deep Blue Sea (1999 where sharks are used instead of apes. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes Will is trying to prevent the loss of his father, in addition to trying to fight the government so he doesn’t have to abandon Cesar. Cesar on the other hand lost his mother at birth, he’s abandoned by Will, and he loses some friends during his revolution. Loss, abandonment, and not having someone to comfort you when you are subjected to cruelty are causes of emotional hurt that strikes a chord with the audience. I think that is what makes Cesar such an interesting and relatable character. Under the same circumstances, would we not feel sad, lonely, or angry enough to retaliate ourselves?
If you are a fan of the original Planet of the Apes movie, you’ll notice a few throwback references in this new adaptation. You’ll see Charlton Heston briefly appear on a TV, Cesar’s mother is called “bright eyes,” and Cesar is constructing a model of the Statue of Liberty in one scene. Tom Felton’s character, Dodge, gets the honor or delivering two of Heston’s most memorable lines from the 1968 film: “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” and “Take your stinkin’ paw off me you damn dirty ape!” I’m not so sure Tom Felton has earned an exalted enough status to speak such sacred lines on camera, but to his credit he delivers them well and the scenes in which they were spoken were very dramatic and powerful and even left me stunned for a moment. Generally a remade movie will make some references to the original movie that they are (in most cases) destroying. There are plenty of them here, but unlike some remakes, this one doesn’t beat you over the head with them. Other references are really subtle. The orangutan at the primate facility who befriends Cesar is named Maurice, a nod to the actor, Maurice Evans, who plays the orangutan, Dr. Zaius, in the original film. If you haven’t seen the original film, you won’t be missing anything important in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes was indeed a good movie. It was worthy of having the words “Planet of the Apes” in its title. It has interesting characters, a good storyline, great effects, and some nostalgic references in it. There is a big set up for a sequel, and I would welcome it; I left the theater wanting to know what would happen next to Cesar and his newly formed community of intelligent apes. I enjoyed this enough that I want to get a copy on Blu-Ray when it becomes available. If Tim Burton put you off of ever watching another Planet of the Apes movie, do your best to block it from your mind and go see Rise of the Planet of the ApesBatman and Robin (1997) did precede Batman Begins, after all; a rebooted movie can do better than its predecessor.

So, did you see Rise of the Planet of the Apes? Did you like it? Did you not like it? Tell me why. What is your favorite ape movie you’ve ever seen? Comment below!

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