I'm sitting in a theater, and the trailers begin. Hey, there's James Franco, talking about a cure for Alzheimer's. There's an ape, creepily standing over a couple in their room as they sleep. There go multiple apes, galumphing down the Golden Gate Bridge and leaping into helicopters. I scoff, shake my head, and sigh. This does not look like my idea of a good time. I doubt I'll see this movie.
Cut to a few days before the release date of Rise of the Planet of the Apes - the film in question, in case that was unclear - and I'm shocked to discover an amazing amount of good buzz for the movie from the critical community. I reiterate to friends the notion of watching 50 apes wander around a city like a bunch of little T-Rexes (T-Ri?) in Spielberg's The Lost World doesn't appeal to me, but I admit my curiosity is piqued. People I trust are digging this thing, so I decide to see a Saturday afternoon showing - more out of a desire to appease my curiosity than to actually see the movie. And I'll be a damned dirty ape: Rise of the Planet of the Apes is surprisingly excellent.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Freida Pinto, Tom Felton
On paper, this movie has many things stacked against it. A 20th Century Fox tentpole (a studio known for releases of...questionable quality over the past decade), it's got a relatively unknown director in Rupert Wyatt, the filmmakers opted for motion capture effects instead of practical prosthetics, and the entire film is a seemingly unnecessary prequel to a franchise which began in the 1960s and crashed and burned with Tim Burton's entry in 2001. Yet, despite all of these negatives, the film rises (no pun intended) above these obstacles and becomes one of the most purely enjoyable movies of the summer.
The motion capture work here - and Andy Serkis' performance - is, for the most part, astonishingly good. The technology still hasn't quite leapt over the uncanny valley, but after a few minutes of general unease when I realized the CG apes are just slightly unrealistic, this honestly wasn't an issue. The emotion the filmmakers were able to capture from Serkis and the other actors' faces is palpable, and makes the apes the best part of the entire movie; not only that, I'd go as far as to say this is the most impressive use of motion capture technology that I've seen on film. (Avatar featured alien creatures, so perhaps the emotion was easier lost in translation as opposed to here, in which the apes reacted like humans in many ways.)
The most impressive task the writers accomplished was balancing the character of Caesar. He could have easily been immediately villainized, considering his future in this franchise. Instead, he becomes a tragic figure, one who elicits compassion from the audience. He's the kind of character we kind of pull for to get his way in the end, even though he may not go about it the proper way. It's been many, many years since I've seen the original Planet of the Apes, but my memory of it (especially in that iconic finale) conjured feelings of despair and hopelessness with regards to the apes; here, they're matched up against abusive caretakers and corporate sloths, making the apes and their plan sympathetic in the long run.
The action was solid all the way through, the pacing was fantastic, and the acting was great. That Golden Gate Bridge sequence I mentioned from the trailer? Awesome. As a matter of fact, I can't think of a single set piece, character, or even a moment that didn't propel the story forward. (How often can you say that about a summer blockbuster?) James Franco, and John Lithgow brought their respective A-games, and supporting players like Tom Felton, Brian Cox, Tyler Labine, and Freida Pinto rounded out a wonderful cast of compelling characters. But at the end of the day, this is the Serkis circus and Andy reigns supreme.
Based on my perception of the movie before I saw it, I can't believe I'm saying this, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is worth your money to see in theaters. It's not only a great summer movie, it's a coming of age story for an ape (a "coming of ape" story, perhaps?) that is equally as effective as any similar story told from the human perspective. This is one of the rare pieces of pop culture that transcends its cynical studio-driven origins and, against all odds, turns out to be highly entertaining. This is the surprise of the summer. Until next time...