Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Aug 04, 2011 6:34 am 
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A great franchise rises again, sort of

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an exciting, visually dazzling prequel to the great sci-fi thriller franchise about a future world in which simians take over the earth and subjugate humans. A combination of elements of Project Nim and 28 Days Later with a dash of The Shawshank Rebellion, this movie gives us James Franco as a scientist who develops a brain regeneration serum for Alzheimer's. Testing it on chimps, he finds it increases their intelligence exponentially and almost instantly. Exciting mayhem follows. And up-to-date technology using "motion capture" technology developed for James Cameron's Avatar and CGI to make the anthropomorphic apes much more real looking in crowd scenes and closeups than in the Sixties and Seventies films. Trouble is, this is only half of a pop intellectual thriller because as the movie progresses the computer generated imagery and loud music meld into a violent conflict so the subtleties tend to get submerged in fighting and explosions. Except for an initial kernel of information there is not a lot that is new here, but it sure looks sharp in its (expensive) state-of-the-art computerized clothing. Even if this movie offers more to the eye than to the mind and heart, it shows the Apes series still retains its magic.

Will Rodman (Franco) is a San Francisco researcher for Gen-Sys, a genetic engineering medical firm, with a personal stake in trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's because his dad Charles (John Lithgow) already shows advanced symptoms, though he still can live at home. Will's boss, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), whose eye is on the bottom line, sees no future in the research, though he later radically changes his stance -- the film favors action over motivation. There are clearly dangers in this testing, and when one of the test subjects goes wild Jacobs shuts down the project immediately and orders the simian subjects to be euthanized. Will rescues a baby chimp, Caesar, and takes him home, where Caesar and Charles immediately bond. Caesar's rapid and spectacular development of superior intelligence and desperation about Charles leads Will to treat his father with the trial serum. And it works -- for a while -- so spectacularly that the next morning Charles is discovered playing a Bach fugue on the piano.

Superior intelligence (and extraordinary dexterity and climbing and jumping skills) aside, Caesar has his mother's violent protective tendencies. So when Charles suddenly relapses and does some car damage and a nasty neighbor gets mean, Caesar counter attacks. Animal Control comes and takes him away. This echoes the trajectory of the Seventies chimp research detailed in James Marsh's recent documentary Project Nim, where a chimpanzee raised like a human child becomes dangerous and is locked up with other chimps -- which he has no experience of. Will tries to bribe Landon (Brian Cox), the sleazy supervisor at the ape house where Caesar's housed. Meanwhile Caesar has to cope with the gratuitous cruelty of Landon's son Dodge (Tom Felton, who plays Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter).

Obviously this is a blue-ribbon cast, with the charismatic Franco at the lead backed up by Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire as his sweet veterinarian girlfriend Caroline. Too bad they aren't given much to do that's beyond generic. Some have commented that the motion-captured Andy Sarkis as the grown up Caesar has a fuller range of emotional expressions than any of the human cast. There are dozens of human characters in the movie, but they're less memorable than the individual apes, gorillas, and orangutans that eventually are released and led into a revolt by the ingenious Caesar. It's the rise of rage among these escaped caged beasts that seems to draw on the starting idea of Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, of a spreading rage virus spurred when experimental apes escape from captivity. In Project Nim, Nim's imprisonment with lab animals marks the low point of his sad story.

Things deteriorate after this, though the CGI remains impressive, and less emphatically ultra-violent than the usual comic book blockbuster. It's just that as the apes multiply and overrun San Francisco and engage in a showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge, they become simply a horde of extras, or, seen from above, a little like swarming insects. Their goal is an ironic bit of symbolic nature, the domesticated redwood forest across the bridge known as Muir Woods. Where they will go from there remains to e seen. Their rampage has been impressive, but the threat they represent at this point seems a bit exaggerated. Not all the thinking behind this screenplay is ironclad.

The interest of the ideas engaged -- and the Planet of the Apes series has always been thus stimulating -- is once again the conflicting allegiances that this prequel awakens in the viewer, who observes homo sapiens being overrun, while sympathizing with the revolt of the wronged caged creatures. There are also other themes, sometimes simplistically enunciated, as when one character tells Will that "maybe some things are not meant to change" in answer to his search for a genetic cure to senility. As in Project Nim it's also suggested that to experiment with intelligent higher apes is to play with fire. Once you've treated an intelligent chimp like a human baby and let him run free in your house, you can never put him back in a cage. When he grows big and strong and dangerous, you've created a monster. This is the kernel of real-life truth the screenplay cleverly builds on. Caesar's and Will's final farewell is a touching little gesture of inter-species love and understanding. But mostly the apes are angry and out for blood and the finale, as is typical for the franchise, is full of foreboding.

Rise of Planet of the Apes is exciting, but it's a mixture of pluses and minuses. As too often in slickly promoted Hollywood movies, the best version of it may well be the trailer. I left the theater feeling hugely disappointed, because the early sequences are so suggestive of possibilities, while the latter scenes are just conventional chases and battles. From the point of view of what technology can do to make a fantasy of apes in revolt come to life, the movie stays dazzling to the final moment. The overbearing musical score by Patrick Doyle is obtrusive from quite early on and the booming and banging noises that accompany any collective ape action are too loud to let you think or feel: it's sonic Shock and Awe so crude that it's obvious we're being treated as far dumber than the apes. But Andy Sarkis' motion-capture performance through his simian avatar is so sympathetic, and all humans other than Will, Charles, and Caroline so one-dimensionally unappealing, our allegiances are skillfully manipulated so as to be troubling to the end.

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