Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In all the advertising for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, James Franco is touted as the lead attraction. He’s his usual wonderful self in it (I have a big crush on Mr. Franco) and we’ve all long ago forgotten his ill-fated Oscar hosting debacle. But the real star of the movie is someone most of us wouldn’t recognize if we bumped into him in the popcorn line. He’s British actor Andy Serkis.

Serkis is known mostly for his work as the creature Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy. He was so good in that role that there was talk in the Motion Picture Academy about creating a new category of Oscar awards for digital performers. Known as “performance capture,” the amazing process that transforms an ordinary human into a different kind of creature is a complex one, in which an actor’s movements are recorded in three dimensions and used to create the animation of a fully digital character. What’s essential in the process is an actor with an incredibly expressive face and body and that’s where Andy Serkis excels.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis plays the character of Caesar, a chimpanzee who is raised as a human and becomes super-intelligent thanks to a genetically modified serum. Unlike the original Planet of the Apes, where actors wearing make-up and costumes played the ape characters, in this reboot or origins version of the Apes stories, the apes are all computer generated. The “performance capture” technique used with Serkis is so effective that it’s he–not the human actors–who dominates the film. He’s the character that creates the emotional resonance in the audience and makes the movie unforgettable.

British director Rupert Wyatt, with only one major film notched on his belt (The Escapist), has masterfully combined technology and good old-fashioned storytelling to come up with the movie of the summer. It’s incredibly photographed, capturing violence and action it all their gritty reality, and still finding time for lyrical beauty. It’s even got thought-provoking themes about the costs of scientific hubris and the role of homo sapiens in Nature’s scheme. The human actors are all fine. But it’s Caesar the chimp who gives the film its heart and soul, and humanity. Andy Serkis’ digitized persona as Caesar is the most compelling character in the film and so far of any film this year.

What made Rise of the Planet of the Apes so impactful for me is the fact that I had just seen the superb documentary, Project Nim, a few days before. That film, directed by Oscar-winning James Marsh (another Britisher) is the story of a real chimp, raised as a human and taught to communicate in sign language, who is abandoned by his human teachers. So much of what Nim, the real animal, went through also happens to Caesar, the digital animal, that the two stories seem like variations on the same themes. I highly recommend this documentary, which already is on my list of Ten Best Movies for the year.

Geneticist Will Rodman (James Franco) has been working for years to develop a serum that will cure Alzheimer’s disease. His ambition is personal–he lives with his beloved father, played by John Lithgow, who is quickly losing his mind and physical abilities to the cruelty of the disease. One of the female apes in Rodman’s experiments, called Bright Eyes because of the green flecks that developed in her irises, has grown into a genius after taking one of the experimental serums. Rodman is convinced this serum will cure his father and all the other sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease.

When Bright Eyes is accidentally killed after she goes on a rampage to protect her newborn child, the experiments are cancelled and the remaining animals euthanized. Rodman’s compassionate assistant, Robert (Tyler Labine), finds the newborn chimp and convinces Will to take him home.

Rodman discovers that the baby, named Caesar, has inherited the serum from his mother’s blood–and it’s made him a super-ape. The hyperkinetic scenes of Caesar leaping all over the house, rolling, tumbling, climbing, having a merry old time in suburban San Francisco, are hilarious. Will falls in love with beautiful primatologist, Carolina (Freida Pinto from Slumdog Millionaire). One day the lovers take Caesar to the nearby redwood forest and let him run free. Caesar climbs the trees and flings himself ecstatically through the forest. Freedom has rarely seemed so soaring. .

Alas, paradise doesn’t last forever. Caesar grows up. He’s big and powerful and has huge biting teeth–and guess what?–he’s still an animal. He ends up in a dirty cage in a Dickensian primate facility. One of his nasty guards is Tom Felton, channeling his Draco Malfoy character from Harry Potter. Caesar’s anguish at being abandoned is so palpable, it’ll break your heart–and if you’ve seen Project Nim, you can’t help but remember what happened to the real chimp.

But Caesar is a super-hero– a simple lock can’t hold back this guy. In time, Caesar arranges a wild prison break and all the primates–including the wise old circus orangutan, the bully chimp and the really angry big ape, follow Caesar’s example and escape. They are determined to take revenge on the humans who have mistreated them–in essence, that means almost all humans. And why they’re at it–why not rescue their buddies in the zoo? Hey, they could all make spears from the posts in the wrought iron fence.

The apes are fueled by their resentment and the humans are fighting back the only way they know how–with more and more firepower. The super-hero movies earlier in the summer are positively tame compared to the primal battle between animals and humans in this flick. There is so much action demanding your attention, that it’s easy to forget that Robert, the research assistant, got infected with some of the chimp serum. He been expelling drops of blood for days. It’s gross, but he sneezes on several people, one of whom is an airline pilot who flies international flights.

The Rise of the Planet of the Apes is such a non-stop entertainment freight train that you don’t realize until afterwards what was nagging at you all throughout the movie. On the way home you remember–this movie, with all its certifiable entertainment value–has one major flaw. It’s all guys. Except for pretty Freida Pinto who doesn’t really do any thing but deliver an ominous line. “I really love chimps,” she says prettily, “but I’m afraid of them, too.” That’s it. She has no more input on the plot than that. All the scientists are male. All the chimps except Caesar’s Mom are male. All the cops are male. Heck, even the traffic horse rushing down the San Francisco bridge toward the avenging apes is male.

Wake up, big American movie producers. Half the work population in this country and half the audience is female. This film’s male-centric focus is all the more annoying to me because one of its key players is producer Amanda Silver, a woman. It’s 2011 for pity’s sake–get with it! There were several roles that could easily have been played by women. For its unforgivable sexist perspective, I took off a half-point from the film’s rating.

Warning–don’t leave at the first sign of the end credits or you will miss a scene that gives a whole different meaning to the movie. Stay and enjoy every minute.

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