Monday, August 8, 2011

Reel To Reel: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes

Monkey see, monkey do.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Andy Serkis (motion-capture), James Franco, John Lithgow
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Intense action sequences, mild profanity

No apes were harmed in the making of this picture. In fact, no apes were used in the making of this picture, which alone makes Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes a landmark achievement. You will hear this film compared to Avatar, and that is not a stretch. Motion-capture CGI is now at the level where human actors can be seamlessly replaced by monkeys in an ironic form of reverse evolution theory.

But actors still gotta act, and that's where Rise rises. Its primate stars are nuanced, sympathetic characters, not one-dimensional dirty apes, and nowhere is that more clear than in the performance of Andy Sirkis as Ceasar, a chimp saved from death who grows into the leader of a revolution. As Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, he's already familiar with seeing other faces pasted over his own, but it's still his expressions and characterization that comes through.

Ceasar is the house pet and test subject of scientist Will Rodman (Franco), who's working on a cure for Alzheimer's Disease. Rodman has developed a virus that not only halts the illness but also regenerates brain tissue. His research nearly collapses when a test chimp gets out of control, but Rodman is relentless because he has another objective: saving the life of his Alzheimer's-afflicted father (Lithgow).

Rodman watches Cesar develop into super-chimp, smart and getting smarter, and it encourages him to try the experimental drug on his father. Dad comes out of his disease like he's awakened from a nightmare, and Ceasar happily swings through the trees. All would be well if it weren't for nature taking its course and both the chimp and the treatment getting out of hand.

Rise is unmistakeably a parable about tampering with the workings of the brain, but its real target is our heart as we watch Ceasar struggle with his feelings. Is he a pet or a really hairy person? Is he a normal chimp or something else? Ceasar can communicate with signs, but it's his eyes that do most of the talking. If Andy Serkis doesn't get some kind of award nomination for his mastery of expressions, I'll be tempted to beat my chest like King Kong. Oh yes, there's a gorilla in this picture, along with a circus orangutan, and Cesar talks to the latter like Tarzan when it's subtitled for us. I wonder if the filmmakers intended that allusion or if it's just a nifty coincidence.

Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes deserves a sequel not just because it's a good picture. It's a good picture that actually left me wanting more, instead of being just another shallow summer blockbuster. Right now this film is exceeding expectations at the cash register, and that's always a promising sign, not that Hollywood needs one to sequelize anything.

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