Saturday, August 6, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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We are now into the dog days of summer and the big movies are starting to wind down as families across the nation start heading back to school. The Movie Monkey has been waiting all summer for this particular movie. Not because it was going to be a great movie, but because one simian should support another, don't you think? While not the top of the movie evolutionary chain, Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes in with a very solid upright position.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes Movie Poster
While 2011 Academy Awards co-host James Franco, Oscar nominated John Lithgow and leading lady Freida Pinto from Academy Award Best Picture winner Slum Dog Millionaire received the top billing, in my opinion, Andy Serkis in his motion capture portrayal of chimpanzee Caesar should have had his name on top of the other three. As Caesar, Serkis' depiction of the primate with ever evolving intelligence was given through his eyes and body language, not through speech. This is when the acting skills need to be sharp and refined. Tied into the character were the good folks over at Weta Digital, the company started by Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson who converted the digital plot points generated by the motion capture and rendered out the hairy bodies that became chimpanzees, gorillas, apes and orangutans.

The original Planet of the Apes with Charlton Heston came before the public in 1968. The last in the series, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, released in 1973. So it's been almost 40 years between the last time the series appeared on the big screen and lost to many younger people and now we're given the origin story. It would seem rather risky but at the same time not. In the original, it was never disclosed how the apes became the dominant species and humans below them. This unanswered question left the door wide open for exploration and didn't need to be rewritten or reimagined by Hollywood writers as seems to be the case for many pictures today.

In a number of cautionary tales of man creating something that ends up being his downfall the intent was with good and pure motivations. This origins story can be filed in the "good intentions gone wrong" folder. Dr Will Rodman (Franco) is working for a cure for Alzheimers which is afflicting his father Charles (Lithgow). Animal testing on chimps is going positively, especially on one chimp named Bright Eyes. When Bright Eyes goes on a rampage the program is shut down and all the animals are ordered to be put down but not before it is discovered that there was an off spring of Bright Eyes. In a moment of compassion, Will brings the baby chimp home and raises him. When growing chimp Caesar hurts himself and needs medical attention, it's at the vet's where Will meets Caroline (Pinto) and with prompting from Caesar through sign language the two start dating.

Will is able to hold onto his dad and Caesar for about eight years when things start to fall apart. Caesar was learning, reasoning and communicating from the altered genes passed down from his mother. While trying to protect Charles, Caesar injures a neighbor and ends up at a primate sanctuary where for the first time has interaction with other primates. Caesar is exposed to cruelty from humans and fellow apes. One of the handlers, Dodge Landon (Tom Felton) was a reference back to the original movie. If you saw The Green Mile, Percy and Dodge were cut from the same cloth. Both gave inhumane treatment to their charges and both ended up paying for that cruel handling.

In the third act, Caesar takes charge and leads the rebellion. He escapes from the sanctuary and sets free the other captives at the lab and zoo. Primates rampage through San Francisco using primitive weapons like fence spears and man hole covers to take out the opposition leading to the climatic battle on the ultimate icon of the city by the bay. King Kong had the Empire State Building and Caesar had the Golden Gate bridge...sort of symbolic as he crossed over from living in the world of man to living in the world of apes.

The movie runs for 105 minutes and is rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language. During the running time there are lots of nods to the original series of movies with names, lines and objects given. If you have seen any of the movies you'll appreciate the little tips of the hat. Don't immediately leave when you think the movie is over. Hang for a few moments as a bit of a set up for any possible sequels is given. After you leave the theater you can discuss with your friends some of the moral dilemmas offered ranging from animal treatment and animal experimentation to how far would you go for the care of a sick family member.

There are a few plot holes, but don't let that detract you from the overall experience. My biggest was were there really all that many of our evolutionary cousins located within the city limits of San Francisco? But still, the movie is a solid movie for the summer season praiseworthy of a bucket of popcorn and a cup of soda.

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