Friday, August 5, 2011

Review - Rise of the Planet of the Apes

An origin story set in present day San Francisco, where man's own experiments with genetic engineering lead to the development of intelligence in apes and the onset of a war for supremacy.

Origin stories to pre-existing franchises can be a tricky situation. There are so many tangibles that could result in ruining what was previously a undeveloped backstory. 20th Century Fox was wise to be particularly cautious with "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" making sure to strike the right chord. There are plenty of ways this origin story could have gone but the path selected aptly tells a universal tale of equality that is sure to give audiences a rising experience at the cinema this year.

It must be said that the title to the film is a bit misleading. Do not expect to see a movie about apes overthrowing the planet, because that is not the intention by any means. The use of the word 'Rise' more comes to centralize on Caesar and his awareness. Before I get ahead of myself, I should clarify a few central details. Caesar (the main focus of the film) was born in a pharmaceutical testing facility. Before his birth, Caesar's mother Bright Eyes, was tested with a drug that had the potential to cure Alzheimer's disease. Within primates, this experimental drug promoted brain growth and a increased capacity for learning. The effects of this drug were genetically passed to Caesar while within his mother's womb. This genetic exchange lead to a dramatic increase in Caesar's learning capacity once he was born. As Caesar ages and grows, his character begins to understand the realities of how his species is treated in comparison to humans in modern society. How they are looked upon as a lesser species, used for experiments, as well as being held in captivity. 'Rise' creates the idea that Caesar could be the first advocate in a Primate Civil Rights Movement. Not that such a thing is physically eluded to in the movie, but metaphorically, Caesar is a driving force in changing the way our planet perceives primates. Like mankind, Caesar wants his species to be able to live freely and have the ability to choose for themselves. This is something our own United States Constitution deems to be a self-evident truth. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" at its core is a stimulating experience following a primate's rise to becoming self-evident.

It is one thing to have a connecting message like equality but it is a completely different thing to actually make the concept stick but 'Rise,' does a fabulous job of sucking the audience into the story from the get-go and never letting go. One reason this message and 'Rise' are so arresting is the magnificent motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis. Serkis is no stranger to motion-capture and his seducing talent is on display throughout. Serkis is magically captivating as Caesar. Working primarily with sounds and movement, Serkis is able to keep the audience glued in to every emotion he displays as Caesar on screen. Simply put, there is never a second you wonder what Caesar is thinking. Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, Chris Gordon, Devyn Dalton and Jay Caputo all also deserve praise for their contributions in the motion-capture performances. The entire group interacts without error balancing human and primal instincts through physical acting. I especially loved the character development and amidst the apes. I can't stress it enough, all of the apes are seriously mesmerizing.

There was a time when I said, "apes cannot be cgi." I am now ready to eat those words. The cgi throughout "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is spectacular. The apes are immediately consuming. First and foremost because of the unmarred motion-capture performances, but the cgi is so polished and precise the humanistic performances of the actors bleeds right through. The animation is so well done I completely forgot I was watching cgi creatures versus real primates for large chunks of the film. Yes, there are a few uncanny moments that look a incy wincy bit created, but overall, I was entranced by the visuals Weta Digital created.

The one area that 'Rise' slightly falters is the human element. None of the human characters are more than a simple stereotype and this is on purpose. Remember this movie is told through the eyes of the primates, or more exclusively through Caesar. In order to flesh out Caesar's character development and the prevailing message of equality, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's script decided to dumb down the humans to A-typical character types. As odd as it may sound, the digital characters in 'Rise' have all the depth while the human characters are mainly there to display surface level traits i.e. good and bad. This choice might be a Catch-22 with audiences. For younger audiences, having all the human characters be nothing more than personifications of right and wrong allows them quickly decipher the character's position and rightly focus on the apes point of view, meanwhile older audiences are sure to notice the one-dimensional characters and could become deterred by their lack of development. Again, I get the decision to focus on Caesar's self-discovery more than the human arc, but I think there could have been a stronger balance between the two.

While I wouldn't necessarily consider "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" an action movie, it certainly contains some thrilling action sequences. What I found particularly interesting is a number of the so-called "action sequences" are not centered around fighting, but instead Caesar and his primal instincts. These sequences created by the Weta Digital team and director Rupert Wyatt interchange between a first person point-of-view and more the traditional voyeur perspective following Caesar swinging and climbing through the trees of the Pacific Northwest among other locations. There are, of course some magnetizing action sequences with the apes fighting as eluded to in the trailers, all of which comes in a steady force through the third act building up to a cheer and tear inducing finish.

Final thoughts on 'Rise' leave me fulfilled. Director Rupert Wyatt delivered a emotional prequel that will be a satisfying experience for 'Planet of the Apes' fans as well as general audiences. Hardcore 'Apes' fans will also enjoy the slight nods the origin tale throws at the original 1968 science fiction drama. One nice surprise I didn't expect was the prequel reached a full fledged conclusion. So many prequel/origin/reboot franchise movies of late have pulled the "Back to the Future 2" ending with a huge cliffhanger begging for you to come back and finish up the whole story at a later date. Studios have over-used this strategy recently, but wisely 'Rise' does not. If this film ended up being deemed a failure by the studio and no further 'Planet of the Apes' movies were made, 'Rise' will remain complete in my mind. At the same time, 'Rise' does an able job of leaving the door open for more potential 'Planet of the Apes' films.