Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Swapping out fears of nuclear holocaust for the less definite disease paranoia, Rise of the Planet of the Apes repositions the root of man's fall as the noble but misguided attempt to alter nature. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist for a pharmaceutical firm who engineers a virus to repair the brain, effectively curing Alzheimer's and other brain-degenerative diseases. It's a lofty goal, and one that doesn't particularly need the addition of Will's Alzheimer's-stricken father (John Lithgow, making the most of an almost unwritten part) to sell the importance of such a breakthrough. But when an aggressive test chimp forces the closure of the research, Will secrets away the ape, Caesar, who inherited his mother's altered genes and exhibits intelligence even beyond that of a young human.
This is a mercifully non-mythologizing setup, and while Rise dallies in getting toward any kind of point, the scenes with young Caesar are entertaining for one simple reason: Andy Serkis. Franco portrays the pain of watching his father slip away with all the deep human agony of watching a meter reader assign a parking ticket, but Andy Serkis, rendered by computer animation, creates a broad emotional spectrum for Caesar's development. Though the CG of the ape bodies is noticeably fake —and is it me or has CGI actually gotten worse of late? — Serkis' wonderful captured facial and body progression through childlike wonder to an increasing sense of discomfort and confinement in the cramped San Francisco house is the most thrilling mo-cap performance since, well, Serkis' last one. When Caesar later becomes a revolutionary, Serkis manages to put righteous fury on a chimp's face, even as he never loses that sense of empathy.
In order to transition from this secluded growth to a full-on revolution, however, writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver rely on logic gaps and laughable shortcuts. When the situation of raising a hyper-intelligent but confused and powerful chimp inevitably leads to a sour conclusion, Caesar finds himself in a primate shelter under the mistreatment of a one-note slop-slosher (Tom Felton), who pisses Caesar off into leading an insurrection among the captive apes. This personalization of the rebellion lacks the matching social oppression that made Conquest of the Planet of the Apes more plausible, and I wish the filmmakers had taken a more high-minded approach. Perhaps posit the eventual rebellion as a means of asserting a species' dominance, suggesting that a being capable of great intelligence will not merely carve out a place at the top of the food chain but willfully subjugate other species as conquest. This would be in-keeping with the franchise's slyly satiric exploration into mankind's thirst for supremacy, and at the very least it would offer more thematically rich motivation for a full-on war than "Draco Malfoy sprayed me with a hose."
But then, maybe war isn't really what Caesar wants at all, given how the filmmakers soften him for PG-13 purposes. And therein lies the key issue with the film: it does not appear to know what it wants to say, and because of that the plot starts changing on a whim in the film's second half. The greedy CEO of the pharmaceutical firm (David Oyelowo) does a facile reversal on Will's research solely to allow for a stronger version of the "cure" to be manufactured to both heighten the apes' intelligence further and introduce a human side effect that allows the writers to shift blame for the coming apocalypse away from the poor, misunderstood apes. This adds a number of awkward, disconnected lines that no one even tries to coherently bring together at the end, from the unnecessary second batch of test apes to Caesar's forced mercy. The movie performs such an awkward pivot that it recalls the test-audience-generated ending of the aforementioned Conquest, a film that likewise pulled its punches, at least in the theatrical cut.
Nevertheless, director Rupert Wyatt stages some impressive shots that find a richer balance of the gentle and violent than the script, from a shower of leaves falling in ironic beauty as apes swing menacingly through trees to the clever use of San Franciscan fog in the climax on the Golden Gate Bridge. Furthermore, Caesar's interactions with other apes, from his initial suffering for genetic differences to eventual leadership of enhanced primate warriors, are so transfixing that the fluff that fills the second act no longer feels like tedium when the camera stays in the cage with Caesar after dark. The impressive degree of communication exchanged between these mo-capped actors through body language and grunts makes the long stretches of technically wordless sections as gripping as the action setpieces. A late exchange of looks between Caesar and a fallen comrade attains an ephemeral poignancy that will make you mourn the loss of an ape.
These moments, great and small, offer a tantalizing glimpse into a potentially great film, one that unfortunately gets consumed in bet-hedging and plot-convenient rewrites. And if the film ultimately feels pat and trite, it has enough ideas to make the idea of a sequel more appealing than any other franchise-starter this year, save Captain America. Perhaps, like the retrovirus-exposed apes, the intelligence of the writing will have grown exponentially by then to match the potential.