Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Spoiler alert-o-meter: Lots of spoilers ahead, although the movie's title is the biggest spoiler of all.

This newest incarnation of the Planet of the Apes boasts no actors in ape costumes and makeup. The apes are all entirely computer generated. Andy Serkis famously ‘plays’ the main ape, Caesar, by way of motion capture technology. A fancy way of saying that when they shot the movie, Andy wore a body suit and sensors, then the digital likeness of the ape was laid over his form, following his physical lead. Serkis has done this many times before, most notably as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

This technique is at once disconcerting (Caesar at times moves and reacts like a human) and entirely fitting for a movie that wants its audience to feel sympathy for the ape leader of an uprising of apes against humans. More than once a girl sitting behind me in the full theater Ah’d and Oh’d, reacting to an anthropomorphizing Caesar acting cute or sad. This humanizing of the ape took me out of the movie in a fit of knowing giggles.

The movie is a prequel of sorts to the first Planet of the Apes, but also an unofficial remake of the third Apes movie, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. The ending of Rise is right there in the title of the movie. So, for the entire run-time I knew what to expect. But not how it was going to get there. And when it did end, it wasn’t as I had thought. Again this was good and bad. In terms of what came before it, the ending of the movie was a disappointment. The movie doesn’t cop out so much as set up the next Apes movie. And it does so with the trickery inherent to its story.

The trickery here is that the apes are genetically enhanced. It’s science, not an act of nuclear mutation, god, or evolution. And the ape rising implicit in the title is brought about not because the apes are superior but because (Spoiler Alert: I’m about to give away the ending!!!!) the very serum that makes the apes smarter acts as a deadly virus to humans. I almost would rather not know what makes the apes smart enough to take over the world.

As it is, Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes at you as about four different movies strung together in episodes. It could be a mini series, a short one. Or a TV show canceled after four episodes. The first episode has James Franco (!?!?!) as Will Rodman, a geneticist working on a miracle drug, ALZ 113, which he hopes is a cure for Alzheimer’s. He works so single-mindedly on this project to help his father (John Lithgow playing, for once, over the top for a reason) who suffers from it. They test ALZ 113 on apes. Apes they cart in from jungles around the world, captured by poachers – the opening scenes showing this practice is frightening and all too real.

The serum is supposed to act as a regenerative and patch up damaged brains. After Will’s presentation of findings to the board of directors of the big mean genetic therapy pharmaceutical company goes very wrong, his funding is cut and the test apes are put down. But one was pregnant and they are able to save the preemie. Franco takes the newborn ape home and christens him Caesar. So ends the first episode: science gone haywire.

Episode two: Caesar grows up in suburbia. Will fixes up the attic in home one family house in a suburb of San Francisco like a huge playroom. Here Caesar swings around, bounces, does Flying Wallenda moves, and moons out the window at the kids playing next door. Will discovers that Caesar has inherited the traits of his mother, namely the ALZ 113, passed to him from his mother. It becomes apparent that Caesar is preternaturally smart, and since he wasn’t damaged to begin with, this means that the serum works as an augmentation, giving the normal brain (at least on an ape) enhanced capabilities. Meanwhile, Will tests ALZ 113 on his father—and it works. His father thinks clearly again and he plays the piano as well as he used to.

But apes grow fast. In a scene of violent foreshadowing, Will’s father relapses badly and tries to drive off in a neighbor’s car. When the neighbor gets angry at the old man, Caesar escapes the house and lurches to the father’s rescue attacking the neighbor and drawing blood.

Episode three: Caesar is thrown in ape prison. This episode alone is a reason to see the movie. Here Caesar is separated from Will for the first time. And also mixes with other apes, chimps, and orangutans. Since he’s the super smart one, he quickly assumes dominance over even the biggest and brutish ones. They are all kept in cages and let out in the ‘yard’ for exercise.

The yard is a huge domed playpen. The apes are guarded, I mean cared for, by a young lout who taunts them all, especially Caesar. These scenes carry the fun of a revenge fantasy when their caretaker gets his comeuppance. Caesar also gets his paws on more of the serum and administers it to the rest of the apes. When Will finally gains the means to spring Caesar, he has grown wary of all humans and also realizes his place is not with them but with the apes.

Episode four: Prison break and the rise. The prison break is a sight to behold: legions of apes, all of them now genetically enhanced, leaping and scrambling out the top of the prison yard/play pen and descending onto a sleepy San Francisco dawn. Oh boy, this is going to fantastic, I thought.

I was disappointed.  The tension immediately drained out of the movie. As it happened and I sat disappointed watching the apes trounce through downtown and out onto the Golden Gate Bridge, I wondered what I hoped to see. I realized it wasn’t that the movie didn’t live up to my expectation so much as follow through with what it had set up in the earlier scenes. I expected a slaughter, I expected some real warfare between human and ape. I wanted apes to go ape shit. Maybe take up arms, and become as violent as humans. Or something. Wasn’t that the point of the original? Rod Serling’s yawning in his grave.

There was a bit of that, but this is a PG-13 movie, and there were a surprising number of little kids at this viewing. Even an infant in a pram. So, glad they didn’t have to witness a hard R-rated mayhem. And I’m not saying that would have made me a happy movie-goer, but I truly felt that the movie let its audience down.

I wanted a true Rising, and I got some silly message movie about setting animals free to live in their natural habitat. I can get that on the Nature channel. Plus, the GCI effects were not great at this point. While the scenes on the bridge were ominous, creepy, and partly fun to watch, they were overshadowed by some lousy digital work. Everything looked a little off. Maybe they need to make everything move like a metallic blur, ala Transformers.

After the credits started, I hopped out of my seat and lurched toward the exit. Then another scene came on, and I thought, oh yeah, this’ll be good. But I was just set up for the fall of humankind through the ALZ 113 virus, which, as I’ve said in the earlier Spoiler Alert acts as a lethal virus. Cue the next Apes’ installment. Wake me when it’s over.


Theater location: Lowell Showcase, Tuesday, August 23rd, 7:35 pm. Viewed solo. Snack: Slice, diced, and otherwise individualized.

Coming Attractions:

Contagion. All star, big budget disaster movie. About an international lethal virus. Directed by Steven Soderbergh, starring little Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Jude Law, Larry Fishburne.

The Debt. Stuff that happened 30 years ago comes back to haunt a group of Mossad secret agents. With Helen Mirren and Tom Wilkinson and Sam Worthington and Jessica Chastain. Could be classy, could be dumb.

In Time. Justin Timberlake, Olivia Wilde, and Amanda Seyfried. "In the future people stop aging at 25 and must work to buy themselves more time, but when a young man finds himself with more time than he can imagine he must run from the corrupt police force to save his life."

Paranormal Activity 3. I didn't buy the first one, so there's no reason number 3 will be much of an improvement.

The Sitter. Jonah Hill plays a guy who is talked into babysitting a couple of kids. But he's not much of a sitter, and takes the kids out with him to a drug deal. Or a brothel. Or a bar. Or all of the above. Played for laughs, although humor here is very subjective.


Robin said...

Dell -- I loved your review! Since I've heard many positive comments about this film, your ideas about the ending were insightful.

Liz's Mom said...

This is a thoughtful, intelligenly well written review of what sounds like a not very intelligently thought out movie.

Wonderful barbed comments, richly deserved, I am sure.

The short subject bits are always a delight.

Dell Smith said...

Thanks Robin and LM.

Cynthia Sherrick said...

Thank you for another well written, insightful movie review, UN! :)

Dell Smith said...

Thanks CS. I'm a little behind on my movie going, but will hopefully catch a flick tonight in Lowell - it's bargain night after all.