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Monday, August 1, 2011


Rush Hour: Always a bitch.
I’ve never really understood the whole ‘Planet of the Apes’ phenomenon. I get that they’re entertaining films with a few good ideas and a nice twist, but the series’ longevity and level of cultural impact was always somewhat beyond my grasp. I was therefore not only surprised that there was a prequel on the way but even more surprised that it was premiering in this, the most blockbuster-heavy summer in recent memory.

Most of the hype for ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ has happened by stealth and put the special effects front and centre as the primary selling point. Stars James Franco, Freida Pinto and Draco Malfoy (I mean, Tom Felton) have been sidelined in favour of short, effects-heavy clips of the stunningly real-looking apes. Not only is this also how the film itself works, but it’s also why the film works – and no one is more surprised than me that it does.

James Franco stars as Will Rodman, a scientist motivated by the illness of his father (John Lithgow) to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. After a disastrous presentation for his new drug, he is left with nothing but a small baby chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) who displays remarkable intelligence. Will cares for Caesar while continuing to work on his research, but as Caesar grows older and finds the world outside, the situation spirals out of Will’s control.

Perhaps the most pleasant surprise about Rise is the fact it’s willing to engage in the slow burn. So many action or sci-fi movies feel compelled to punctuate their plot with action set-pieces for their own sake, but surprisingly little of Rise feels forced. The creative team understands that scenes of people (or in this case, monkeys) interacting can be just as thrilling as things exploding or colliding and that means the pacing of the film feels just right. Those expecting an all-out monkey assault on Earth might be blindsided by the numerous early scenes of Caesar being adorable and learning about his environment, but they’re worth it because they provide the base for what comes later. The relationship between Will, Will’s sick father and Caesar is given the time and investment it deserves – and that gives Rise every chance to be an above-average, even a great sci-fi movie.

Improving the odds is the outstanding special effects work. Special effects company Weta Digital should lock the FX Oscar away here – not only is the film thankfully in 2-D, but these computer-generated apes give unbelievable performances. Specifically, if there is one performance that warrants that much-mooted Best Motion-Capture Oscar category, it’s Andy Serkis and his computer wizard team as Caesar. The work here is simply outstanding, a real step forward. You understand every single emotion and thought that passes through Caesar’s head, you feel for him and anyone who can make me feel emotionally invested in a computer-generated chimp from start to finish deserves some sort of recognition. Not only that, but the other ape characters are also well rounded and deserving of your emotional attention. That’s a fair effort.

Faring less well in the acting department are those pesky humans. Even a day later, I can’t quite work out if this is a good or bland performance by James Franco – he’s completely without his trademark smirk, so that’s good, but also completely devoid of any other identifiable character traits. He’s not laughably bad or anything – but he’s so buttoned-down that I can’t help but feel he’s dialled it back on purpose to give Caesar/Serkis the limelight. That hurts the film slightly, as we end up caring more about Caesar’s general plight than we do his relationship with his ‘father’. John Lithgow has the showier role as a sufferer of Alzheimer’s and is admirable without being anything special, while Freida Pinto gets VERY short shrift as something barely approaching a character. Having the most fun by far is Tom Felton as Dodge Landon (Ha!) who gets to be involved in the film’s most thrilling (and potentially cheesy) moments.

On the way out of the cinema the discussion turned to what this film was actually trying to say, if anything. The storylines throw out all kinds of moral questions about science, ambition, motivation and revenge without exploring them with any real depth. It’s a film driven by plot, performance and technical wizardry rather than theme – one that gives you just enough to chew on to avoid being shallow, but stops well short of being deep.

My primary complaint involves elements of the film that enter spoiler territory, so I’ll speak in general terms. The elements of Rise that look to set up sequels and join the dots between this and earlier films, primarily concerning the humans, feel forced and out of step with the rest of the action. It’s a token gesture that pays off to some degree as the credits roll (the credits themselves are surprisingly chilling) but it’s hard to really invest in a plotline that is kicked off by a side character being phenomenally, soul-crushingly stupid. It should also be said that the ending doesn’t quite live up to all the fantastically laid groundwork but features several thrilling moments.

I think if it was watched in the wrong mood, the wrong light or on the wrong screen, even, Rise could seem a ridiculous, cheesy film. On the big screen, though, with next to no expectations, I bought into it and was handed a more than pleasant surprise. All the scenes featuring Caesar are just brilliant, and that makes up for the film’s other shortcomings. Rather than having a monkey on its back, the monkey actually does the carrying here. Refreshingly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t try to do too much, it doesn’t have too many characters and it doesn’t have too many plot threads. I don’t love it, but I respect it as professional, thoughtful and highly skilled entertainment.


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