"Running the Serkis from the Monkey Cage"
"Well...That was Fun..."
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes was always the controversial one in the "Apes" series. Test audiences were so upset at the carnage—rioting apes bludgeoning government officials with rifle-butts—that a drastic re-write and edit was demanded by 20th Century Fox (it's why, when you watch Caesar—Roddy McDowall—delivering his "let's be merciful" speech at the end, you only see his eyes to avoid any lip...er...mask-sync problems). Tonally, it's jarring...as well as being a load of bananas. Conquest could have been good...in the disquieting way that the "Apes" movies could be. But, instead, the studio ham-strung it's simian rights leader.
It's different times now. The cities aren't burning down, only our 401K's. So, along comes Rise of the Planet of the Apes—as unnecessary and pointless as any movie could be in this dull Summer Season for movies—after all, it's not a "tent-pole" franchise and arriving rather late in August. The "Apes" series had already run dry in its first go-'round, and in 2001, Tim Burton put out a "re-imagining" of the original that only proved that a "re-imagining" with better FX and make-up doesn't improve on something that depended on some good ideas first and the rest second. This new one seemed like a too late after-thought, and although the trailers looked intriguing, the ad campaigns and posters were uninspiring—there were no "character" posters, no tie-in cups at the 7-11, no "franchise" buzz—just another "Apes" movie long past its relevancy.
Except it has one thing going for it—good ideas. And when I say "good ideas," I don't mean the lines are clever (they aren't—Caesar gets the best lines, and the most effective scenes are played without dialogue) or the acting is anything that will get James Franco another Oscar nomination (he plays it absolutely straight—he has to, and given what surely were bizarre circumstances on the set, that is quite the accomplishment and there's no "hip" attempt to distance himself from the subject). But, at the basic story-telling level of Rise, there are good ideas that play out and lead the audience along, incrementally ramping up the circumstances until you can accept the anarchic and truly mind-blowing with a straight face. Where Burton's Planet billed itself as a "re-imagining," Rise truly is one, turning the circumstances of the first film on its ear, as the circumstances of the Charlton Heston classic turned the evolutionary relations of man and monkey on theirs.
The film starts with a sequence cleverly patterned after "The Hunt" sequence from the 1968 film, and follows its hero's journey through the cruel circumstances of living in Man's World, after having a fairly free existence for most of its growing life,* paralleling Astronaut Taylor's cynically-smug attitude (and subsequent come-down) from the first film. That it goes into different territory, quickly and strategically, is where this film strikes out on equally sure footing.
It couldn't have come at a better time, really, when motion capture technology allows abandoning the use of the monkey make-up that has gone before to achieve its animal effects—as well as having Andy Serkis (he was "Gollum" in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and played "Kong" in Peter Jackson's version of King Kong) mime-playing the lead Ape, Caesar,** which elevates the film, and pays off in strange (and surprisingly subtle) ways one couldn't imagine before. Also, that a lot of it hinges on basic silent movie techniques raises this one considerably in my eyes. Kudos to director Rupert Wyatt (only his second feature) for his good, strong story-telling and to writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver for cracking this "Planet" wide open.***
One appreciates the big picture (man's technological hubris is again his downfall as in the first film) and the small (Caesar's symbol for freedom is nicely arced through the film, and it's not coincidence that the lab where Franco's Alzheimer's cure is developed and the primate facility at the Animal Control compound are structurally the same) that neatly draws parallels within itself and the franchise, taking what was good in concept, expanding on it and breaking out on its own. The result is a rip-roaring film that stands on its own, yet makes one anticipate, even beg for, a continuation if it can be done as well as this one.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a very nifty (and unsettling) Matinee.
|"...paying off in strange (and surprisingly subtle) ways."|
* There may be a little too much of that, actually. The structure of the film so complemets the first film—to a point—that it seems unnecessary to "gild the lily" with so many call-backs from the original—we didn't need a word for word utterance of the first film's iconic line...and do you think the dullards at the Animal Control facility would REALLY be watching The Agony and the Ecstacy? (They'd be better advised to watch Spartacus, although it isn't owned by 20th Century Fox, nor does it star the appropriate actor). Now, Agony/Ecstacy would work...if the one guard was particularly religious...which could inspire in Caesar the whole concept of "The Lawgiver" that was presented in the original series. But, I digress (fan-boyishly)...
** The same motion-capture process that was employed with Serkis for Gollum and Kong was used here by WETA, Peter Jackson's New Zealand FX company. Some of the early scenes are a bit dicey, but once things start galloping along...the FX work becomes truly amazing. Now, with motion-capture, it's become a unique combination of the mime-work done to portray the pre-human apes in 2001 and John Chambers' enhanced theatrical make-up (Arthur C. Clarke ruefully noted that Chambers won a special Oscar that year for his POTA work, rather than 2001: A Space Odyssey, as the Academy "didn't realize our apes were actors."). And back to the point of Franco's job here (and frankly, everybody's), he had to play it completely disciplined in his scenes with Serkis, even though the latter was surrounded by one of the those crazy "motion-capture" suits, while on location (rather than a green-screen stage), which is a movie first.
*** Glenn Kenney, who writes for MSN Movies, fairly nailed it in the expansion of his review. Kenney's no slouch, but called the film "very nearly close to completely awesome" in the review, and noted that the film had four "Holy Shit!" moments, where something so unexpected happens that you wonder what could happen next (at the packed showing I attended, there were audible gasps at one particular happenstance—even though it parallels something that happens in the first film—followed by very nervous laughter). I counted six (but I have a low threshold for "Holy Shit!" moments), where most of the movies this year have had precisely zero.