Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes, reviewed.

The Planet of the Apes series is a vintage science fiction film and television saga detailing the decline of the human race and Earth's eventual takeover by super-intelligent simians. It began in 1968 with Charlton Heston as a astronaut crash-landed on what he believes to be an alien planet where apes hunt and enslave man until the film's big ending: it's Earth! That shouldn't be a spoiler for most people--Fox studios didn't seem to think so, as Rise (hereafter, RotPotA) presumes this ending--but here's the dramatic and iconic reveal even Madagascar assumes you'll understand:

Having only seen the first film, I have no idea how the most recent film coheres with the Apes canon, so to speak, except to say that I learned from IMDb that Battle for the Planet of the Apes does in fact feature a super-intelligent ape named Caesar leading the simian uprising against the human race.

Where RotPotA picks up, it's roughly the modern day and Dr. Will Rodman (a miscast James Franco) is researching an Alzheimer's cure by treating chimpanzees with gene therapy. Actually, if you've seen Deep Blue Sea, the premise is cut and pasted from that film but with monkeys switched out for sharks. Nevertheless, RotPotA is exhibit A for Ebert's maxim that a movie is not good because of what it's about, but because of how it's about it--i.e. it's all in, you know, they way they tell the story. Franco aside, the film does an excellent job of: (1) grounding and humanizing its premise and (2) executing its conflict and resolution with panache.

The always-excellent John Lithgow plays the doctor's Alzheimer's-afflicted father. Some of the most intriguing parts of the film juxtapose his mental decay with the ape's mental enhancement--it's not every summer action film that skillfully shows the distance between species collapsing. I was reminded of the contrasting trajectories of 2001, which shows ape being lifted up into humanity, and the rest of Stanley Kubrick's films, which generally depict some form of dehumanization. Writing about The Shining, the late great film critic Pauline Kael wrote, "The bone that was high in the air has turned into Jack's axe, held aloft, and Jack, crouched over, making wild, inarticulate sounds as he staggers in the maze, has become the ape." These ideas are central to the Apes saga, which, based on the original film, seem to have been first intended as a commentary on fundamentalism, science and evolution during a time of radical social upheaval (the 1960s).

As for the execution, it's the apes that make this movie, and rightly so. Weta Digital--Peter Jackson's kiwi answer to Lucas's ILM--brings the Avatar magic once again, this time making fully digital creations intended to blend naturalistically with everyday settings. They are fantastic specifically for not drawing attention to themselves: the effects exist to render nuanced performances and complex and dangerous sequences which animal actors could never have pulled off. Andy Serkis (of Gollum and Kong fame) serves as the mo-cap actor for the prime primate Caesar, non-verbally communicating the rise of higher consciousness in an animal and thereafter autonomy and open rebellion. It's a fascinating process to behold.

Caesar's rebellion foments and plays out in the typical manner of narratives of uprising and revolt. He first comes to detest his human captivity after encountering a leashed dog while being walked in the woods by the doctor and his girlfriend (the beautiful Freida Pinto). He is placed in an ape sanctuary by court order after violently protecting Lithgow's confused Alzheimer's patient from a belligerent neighbor. There is mistreated, establishes group dominance, and escapes in order to spread the gene therapy that could make more monkeys smarter and rise up against their, er, captors. This all leads to a so-so climax on a fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge where the apes go toe-to-toe with human law enforcement and where, presumably, the first ape ever rides horseback (an iconic image from the Heston film).

In short, it's heady, exciting fun with a B-movie premise and an eye towards (quasi-)naturalism. However, the film barely exceeds ninety minutes, and the ending feels undercooked and rushed as a result. Additionally, there is a subplot about the gene-therapy virus infecting and killing humans that is meant to wrap-up some loose questions (wouldn't the national guard just go into the redwoods and shoot all the monkeys dead?). But it feels cheaply cribbed from the excellently demented 12 Monkeys as well as flagrantly at odds with the underlying nuclear implications of the original movie. But if you're just looking for a good time from Redbox, I'd say it's more than worth the $1.27.

*btw, if you haven't seen Planet of the Apes (I hadn't, before yesterday), it's streaming on Netflix right now. It's a lot better than you would guess, and is probably second only to 2001 in terms of 1960s science fiction films.

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