Friday, August 19, 2011

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar (Serkis) and Will (Franco).
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Directed By: Rupert Wyatt
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow and Brian Cox

Heading into the summer, Rise of the Planet of the Apes wasn't likely at the top of most filmgoers "must see" lists. After all, it appeared as though Hollywood finally felt like admitting that it had run out of fresh ideas and was willing to settle on rebooting yet another tired franchise as a quick cash-grab.

After five films, two TV series and Tim Burton's most recent interpretation, what more could studios possibly say about those "damned dirty apes?" A lot, apparently.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not only the surprise smash of the summer, but it's arguably the best film of the entire franchise, which dates all the way back to the 1968 original. As the first film in a planned trilogy, this reboot starts all the way back at the beginning -- essentially making it a prequel (of sorts) to the Charlton Heston original.

Set in present day San Francisco, disease researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) spends nearly every waking moment concocting and testing a cure for Alzheimer's -- from which his beloved father, Charles (John Lithgow) suffers. He and his girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto), wind up secretly taking custody of a baby chimp named Caesar (Andy Serkis) after a presentation to a for-profit research company takes a disastrous turn. As Caesar grows, Will discovers the chimp has inherited the chemically induced genius IQ of his dead mother -- making him smarter (he's fluent in sign language) and more aggressive with each passing year. When Caesar violently lashes out in defence of his loved ones one day, the chimp is taken to a brutal ape "sanctuary" run by a cruel man (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son (Tom Felton, with more lines and screen time here than in his entire 10 year stint with the Harry Potter franchise). Caesar is left to fend for himself as he struggles to come to terms with his own potential and live up to his regal name.

Caesar (Serkis).
Even for those reluctant to see yet another ape-fest, do yourself the favour and watch it for Serkis -- covered by motion capture technology and CGI but not, by any means, buried beyond recognition. Somehow the personality he instills in his characterization of Caesar shines through all the computer graphics, resulting in one of the years finest performances to date. Caesar is a complex bundle of emotions and instincts -- both human and animalistic. It says a lot about Serkis' performance that his creation of Caesar is, by far, more fascinating than any of the humans on the screen. Serkis has perfected the difficult art of giving a truly wonderful, subtle performance while physically obscured by technology and it will likely be years before anyone comes close to his masterful ability.

Essentially an action film at its core, Rise of the Planet of the Apes has moments of emotional commentary on animal cruelty interspersed with wooden dialogue and over-the-top action sequences. However, it never ceases to entertain and grab viewer attention which is ultimately what is expected of a summer blockbuster -- if it can tug at your heartstrings in between its action sequences, it's a job well done.

Overall, it's a very good film. Certainly better than anyone expected. In yet another summer filled with lackluster blockbusters and quick cash-grabs, Rise of the Planet of the Apes rises above its seasonal competition and emerges as one of the top quality films of the summer. It even already has Oscar buzz for Serkis' performance (although it will remain to the be seen whether or not that hype can still stick months down the road). While the film won't be recognized for any awards other than deserved ones for Serkis and the special effects, it's arguably the best summer blockbuster since the 2009 Star Trek reboot.