Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

For 20th Century Fox, expectations were high for Rise of the Planet of the Apes: it's an expensive picture, and the company was hoping for another hit. For audiences, particularly critics, expectations were much lower: why did we need another Planet of the Apes movie, only ten years after Tim Burton's disappointing remake? It's also part of the now-endless procession of "reboots," remakes, and sequels that has plagued Hollywood for some time now, as now hardly any team needs to pass before it can be polished up and "modernized." I didn't enter the theater yesterday with low expectations; I went in with no expectations. In fact, I had no interest in the film until critics across the country began praising it and my brother recommended it. But what I saw was astounding: a fully-realized, surprisingly profound film that struck a balance between being a crowd-pleasing blockbuster and a meditative think-piece on the destructive nature of humanity's hubris.

The film is, essentially, a biopic for a fictional character: Caesar, played, in a motion-capture animated performance, by Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings' Gollum, King Kong's titular gorilla). He is born from a test chimpanzee in a laboratory where Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a gene-therapy cure for Alzheimer's. When an incident causes him to lose his funding, Will brings Caesar home, where his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (John Lithgow) takes to him. Will notices Caesar's incredible intelligence, a result of his mother's treatment with the experimental drug. However, Caesar's constantly increasing intelligence leads him to trouble, which in turn sparks in him the urges of rebellion against human society.

If you've seen any of the advertisements for the film, you know that the focus of the campaign has been the visual effects by WETA, the company behind Peter Jackson's Aughts output, as well as Avatar. So far, they've been the only company that's really made the most of motion-capture performances, creating characters that have stood the test of time (Gollum still looks amazing almost 10 years later) and seem believable. Caesar is another knockout performance from Serkis and the WETA team: he's remarkably expressive, thanks to and especially because of his deep, lively eyes, the one thing that has been the bane of motion-capture performances before (see: anything Robert Zemekis has made since Cast Away). Though I'm hesitant to proclaim, as many critics have, Serkis' performance as Oscar-worthy (it's really not only his performance, but also that of the visual effects team), it is terrific, and forms the heart and soul of the film.

Director Rupert Wyatt was no one's first choice to direct the film, but he certainly turned out to be the best choice. He manages to wring out an incredible amount of pathos out of the project, turning what could have been an overblown spectacle of Apes past into a study on humanity's place in nature. The film begins with a strong focus on the human characters, with young Caesar gladly playing and gallivanting about his new home. However, in a great subtle work of direction, the focus shifts to Caesar and the apes as he begins to question his place in the world: human dominance has betrayed him. Thus comes the driving force of any revolution: the oppressed rise up in defiance against the oppressors. What one would never expect from a summer blockbuster is a statement that the human race isn't omnipotent, and that if we toy with nature, it can come back with a vengeance. Of course, these themes have been seen in cinema many times before, but none of those were a reboot of a less-than-classic franchise released in the dregs of August.

Of course, it also helps that Wyatt has a great knack for action, staging the action sequences in inventive ways that make them feel fresh and, for once, exhilarating. It will be very interesting to see where his career goes from here, particularly in relation to what he brings to the inevitable sequel. My only major quibble about the film is that Freida Pinto is basically window-dressing, as her character contributes little to the film and mostly has her stating obvious things while looking very, very pretty. Surely her role could have been meatier?

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is easily the best Apes movie yet. And, in my opinion, provides a philosophical discourse on nature in a more audience-accessible manner than The Tree of Life. In fact, the two make a terrific-if-unexpected double-feature of environmental consciousness: while neither are explicitly ecological-minded, both propose reminders that humanity is a part of nature, for better or worse. Eat your heart out, Avatar. A

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