Saturday, August 6, 2011

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES Is A Truly Badass Blockbuster!


- Rise of the Planet of the Apes hit me like a thunderbolt. I know, there was reason to be skeptical of this one. Some of the trailers were a little flat. The memory of the misguided Tim Burton remake was still relatively fresh. The movie was yet another prequel / reboot in a summer that's had plenty of underwhelming blockbusters that failed to live up to the hype. But Planet of the Apes shocked me in that it wasn't even just a great blockbuster, but a great sci-fi film - a movie that was in turn action-packed, thought-provoking, and emotionally-charged. It even fits in very nicely with the world of the legendary original, and contains plenty of homages to the beloved classic. But man, this is, easily, the surprise of the summer - an absolutely kickass film that is captivating, intense, and positively thrilling for the entirety of its runtime. This might just be *the* blockbuster film of Summer 2011.

First off, I've been reading so many cynical / snarky comments from people who haven't even seen the film. All of these questions like "how can so few apes pose a threat to humans?", "how could a limited number of apes ever end up overtaking mankind?", etc. People - see the movie. The film actually does a fantastic job of laying the groundwork for the world that will eventually come to be in Planet of the Apes, and it does so in a way that is elegantly crafted and logically explained. But, the important thing here is that this movie is only the beginning of the story. It's not about apes taking over the world - not at all. It's about one ape - Ceaser - the first ape to gain super-intelligence, and about his struggle to find his place in a world where he does not quite belong. We see the backstory behind Ceaser's creation in a lab - where he is tested on as part of the search for a cure to Alzheimer's. We see his early life, raised almost as a human child by his scientist caretaker, Will - played by James Franco - and Will's girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and father (John Lithgow). It is because of his father's condition that Will strives - sometimes recklessly - to find a cure for Alzheimer's. Eventually, we see Ceaser's forced entry into a prison-like animal shelter, where he interacts with other apes for the first time, and is forced to deal with a stern warden (Brian Cox) and his semi-abusive assistant (Tom Felton). Finally, we see Ceaser's escape from the facility, and, well ... things get pretty crazy from there.

But really, RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is all about Ceaser's emotional arc. We see him evolve over a period of years from a happy, playful infant to a thoughtful, curious, contemplative adult - and, eventually, we see him become a true leader of sorts. I absolutely cannot say enough about the phenomenal, heartbreaking, riveting work done in this film by ANDY SERKIS in partnership with the wizards at the WETA f/x studio. Ceaser is one of the greatest, most life-like, most emotive digital characters I've ever seen on screen. And Serkis deserves all the credit in the world for helping to bring him to life with his motion-capture performance, easily on par with the work he's done on characters like Gollum and King Kong. From his facial expressions, his gestures, his body language, his *eyes,* we know everything we need to know about what Ceaser is thinking at any given moment. And the level of character, of intelligence, of heart - that Serkis and WETA are able to give to Ceaser - it's mind-boggling. I know there's been talk of Serkis as deserving of an Oscar for his work here, and I couldn't agree more. Either a new category for digital performance should be created, or else Serkis should be included with other Best Actor or Supporting Actor nominees. Because, honestly, the half-human, half-digital performance of Ceaser in this film is one of the absolute best I've yet seen this year.

Aside from Ceaser, the overall f/x work on the film is superb. We get to know several other apes throughout the course of the movie, and the level of character and personality that each has - the level of expressiveness conveyed through body language, etc. - is pretty incredible. I felt more of an attachment to most of these apes than I have to a lot of other supporting characters in this summer's crop of blockbusters - and when they have their big moments, you can't help but be emotionally invested. What I love is that this is CGI used in the way that f/x used to be used back in the day - as a means to tell a story. Not as clutter, not as noise, but completely in service to the story being told. Sure, there is that uncanny valley of the apes at times looking not *quite* real - but with a little suspension of disbelief, you come to completely buy into these characters and this world.

Oddly, I have seen a decent amount of criticism directed at the human actors in the film. And I admit, something about James Franco's scenes from the trailers seemed a little off to me. That said, I came away from the movie thinking that Franco actually did a pretty damn good job here. I think the key for the role of Will was to have someone who seems driven and a bit reckless, but at the same time ... likable and sympathetic. To me, Franco pulled that off quite well, and as the movie progresses, and he and Ceaser's relationship becomes more complicated, I thought there was some real on-screen chemistry between Franco and his simian friend. I know, it sounds crazy, but man, it's there. And for that I give Franco credit - it couldn't have been easy to develop such a full-feeling onscreen relationship with a digital creation. I also hear people criticize Freida Pinto's character as being undercooked. I get that criticism, but I also don't think this was truly her or Will's story - it's Ceaser's. The movie didn't need a drawn-out romance, it had plenty of other things to worry about, and I actually give it credit for not falling into the typical blockbuster movie trap of unnecessarilly giving too much time to a big romance plotline. That particular plotpoint served its purpose in the story, but otherwise remained in the background ... which to me is fine. Also, I really loved John Lithgow in the film. The guy has done more TV than film for a while now, but it was great seeing him in a key supporting role here. Lithgow is one of those guys who can inject a certain sense of offbeat danger and imbalance into any scene, and he's therefore a perfect fit for this film. We root for Lithgow's character but also worry about him - so I say, it's an excellent turn for the actor. Meanwhile, Tom Felton plays the movie's most cartoonish character - a somewhat assholish kid who is mean to the apes in his care. I enjoyed the character though, because his entire purpose is basically to eventually learn a lesson about karma being a bitch, and when that moment comes ... it's a good one. Overall, I thought the cast of the film did a nice job. It's important to remember though ... the APES are truly the stars of the film, and some of the movie's best scenes actually have minimal or no human presence.

And man, one of the great surprises of the movie is the discovery of director Rupert Wyatt. I kept thinking throughout the film ..."wait a second, *who* directed this?". Because the energy, the dynamism, the flow of the film is just off-the-chain awesome. The storytelling at play here is simply superb, with Wyatt knowing when to breathe or when to give time to a key emotional beat. At the same time ... when the action kicks into high-gear: holy crap! This movie's big action set-pieces were absolutely badass. Wyatt delivers some incredible, head-spinning action scenes that were positively Peter Jackson-esque. He makes sure to pepper said scenes with the kind of momentous, holy-$%#& moments that will have audience members cheering and gasping in unison. Because wow, when some of the movie's big reveals and twists occur ... they really are jaw-dropping. And yet, the big action scenes are so effective in part because of the strength of the quieter, more character-driven scenes that build up the drama and emotional tension so effectively. Suffice it to say, Wyatt has now put himself on the map. Get this guy on more big movies, because the man clearly has skills.

I will also give some real credit here to the screenplay. It's thoughtful, character-driven, and very smartly-structured. One thing that really impressed me is how the film covers a somewhat large span of time in such an effective manner, with the arc of Ceaser feeling both epic and naturally-progressing. To be honest, the only moments that took me out of the movie a bit were some of the more blatant callbacks to the original. Fun, sure, but probably not needed in the grand scheme of things (and let's face it, Tom Felton's delivery of some key lines could simply never live up to Charlton Heston's from back in the day). But again, I really felt like the underlying plot of the movie was delivered in a smart way, creating a surprisingly workable scenario that sets the stage for a world that could, indeed, one day be ruled by the apes. There are some good twists here, so go into the movie with an open mind, and I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.

APES really does deliver the goods, and all in all it's hard to find much to complain about. It gave me everything I could want from great blockbuster filmmaking - a smart and thought-provoking sci-fi story, outstanding characters (in this case, brought to life by some truly groundbreaking f/x work), emotionally-charged and exciting action, and some truly great moments that left me buzzing as I walked out of the theater. Sure, it's been a crowded summer at the movies, but amidst a sea of medicority, the APES stand tall.

My Grade: A

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