Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Chimp Plan B: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes review


FILM REVIEW

Review Scoring Chart - 10: Masterpiece; 9: Outstanding; 8: Very Good; 7: Good; 6: Above Average; 5: Average; 4: Below Average; 3: Bad; 2: Awful; 1: Reprehensible; 0: Non- Functional.

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
Dir: Rupert Wyatt
Stars: James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Tom Felton, Freida Pinto, David Oyelowo
Running Time: 105mins

I can't decide whether or not it really is simple coincidence that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes opened within spitting distance of Project Nim, a documentary which makes for a strangely ideal companion piece. Nim will leave you loathing the human race by the end; Rise will give you the satisfaction of seeing them receive their just comeuppance by the end. It's clear that Rise's plot took heavy inspiration from the real-life events which Nim chronicled, albeit with the tweak that the science experiment in question involves testing a drug to cure Alzheimers, rather than a behavioural experiment.

Though it does come across as rather derivative for anyone familiar with Nim, Rise benefits from being based on such a powerful story: at a time when 'realism' and seriousness seem to be the bywords in most forms of entertainment, it's a pleasure to watch a movie based around such a knowingly outlandish concept as apes becoming super-intelligent and mounting a rebellion against their human oppressors, but that foot in reality gives the story some dramatic weight. Of course, there are a fair number of unintentional laughs to be had as well, assuming you share my sense of humour and feeling that chimps are inherently hilarious. But Rise takes what looked certain to be a disaster - a prequel no-one wanted to a series of movies that descended into rubbish after two entries - and produced one of the brighter spots of a particularly grim summer for blockbuster entertainment.
 
Central to the movie's success is its unexpected bravery in storytelling. This is not a story about humans being overthrown as much as it is the apes starting their ascendancy. The human actors all play supporting roles to Caesar, the CGI chimpanzee from whose point-of-view we experience the drama. For what represents only a short time in the existences of James Franco's scientist, we see Caesar's story from birth as he grows to feel betrayed and then angered by the people whom he trusted and ended up betraying him. It's not quite so simple as that though (even if the movie is never exactly subtle), because while Caesar is rendered hyper-intelligent by traces of an experimental drug passed onto him after it was administered to his pregnant mother, he retains his wild instincts. 

The key event of the movie, which causes Caesar to be taken away from his surrogate family of scientists, is written that the actions of both human and ape alike are sympathetic and understandable. Caesar acts to defend his family in the only way a wild animal would know how, leading to a court order deciding he is too dangerous to live in a residential neighbourhood and ordering him sent to a primate facility. From then on, characters and events take a turn for the comic book, especially in the portrayal of the facility's owners as the most boo-hiss of irredeemable villains, but since the writers got the moral subtleties of that first event right, everything that happens subsequently has a solid base in reasoning on which to build.

Let's also not forget that this is a movie about super-brainy apes taking their first step to dominating the planet, so having a few over-the-top villains hanging around really only adds to the fun. Since it has already been established that not all humans are as cacklingly devious as the young guard played by Tom Felton (basically playing Draco Malfoy in civvies) or David Oyelowo's profits-obsessed executive, having those figures around makes it all the more satisfying when they are sent to their chimp-delivered demises. Felton, in particular, is given a suitably shocking send-off. My suspicion is that the filmmakers knew they would never quite escape the shadow of The Simpsons' 'Stop The Planet Of The Apes... I Want To Get Off!' ("I hate every chimp I see/From Chimpan-A to Chimpanzee!"), so amped up the villains to give the audience's amusement somewhere to indulge itself without disrupting the important dramatic points.

The movie plays the rest of its story straight-faced, right down to the monkeys vs military standoff on the Golden Gate Bridge that is the movie's only big, and thankfully very entertaining, set-piece. Although attempts at dramatic irony, by having characters (mostly Felton) repeat lines from the original Planet, fall absolutely flat and only serve to temporarily sever immersion in the story, for the most part the movie avoids winking at the audience. Outside Caesar's story, there's an Alzheimer's subplot made affecting - despite being played as obviously as could be - by a performance from John Lithgow which emphasizes the tragedy of the condition through a character we see at both his lively best and as the disease slowly degenerates his mind. 

James Franco doesn't get much to do other than react, and make more knowledgeable members of the audience wonder how much more glorious the movie would have been had Jeff Goldblum been cast instead (as was the original plan), but that's more than is given to Freida Pinto, whose entire role consists of looking gorgeous and concerned. She nails it, but doesn't find an answer to the question of why her character is in the movie in the first place, other than as the token hot girl.

It's Andy Serkis who will rightly take the acting plaudits, building on the digital work he did with Peter Jackson on the dismal King Kong remake to form a fully-rounded character out of the chimpanzee Caesar. The quality of the CGI varies, but the performance behind it more than makes up for the nuances it lacks. Aside from getting the basic movements and posture spot-on, Serkis builds up Caesar's growing intellect through a gradual expansion of his range of movements and expressions. He's let down occasionally by the screenplay, which makes his sign-language conversations with a circus ape rather too detailed (and the other ape too intelligent for that point in the story) and a late twist, vital to the Planet of the Apes mythology but not something that needed to be shown on-screen, come across as laughably silly rather than harrowing, but his work with the material remains rock-solid. From Gollum to Caesar, Serkis is well on his way to becoming history's first motion-capture movie star.

Rise isn't what could ever be called a subtle film, but it balances its serious elements with its fun with enough precision to tell a surprisingly brave and often engaging story. Aside from the occasionally cringeworthy reference, it's an experience which works perfectly well on its own terms and probably didn't need the Planet Of The Apes branding which makes the title so cumbersome. Though most of the laughs are unintentional, the silliness of the concept is embraced just enough that they become part of the fun and feel more like laughing with the movie than at it. The tone and pacing have are a tad inconsistent, with ridiculous villains and situations turning up in a central plotline that is otherwise delivered as serious drama, but it feels like something different and relatively original - again, unless you saw Nim beforehand - in a summer where formula has reigned supreme, which was definitely in need of a shot of chimpan-glee. Sorry. [ 7 ]

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