If you take the time to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, and Lord knows you should, be prepared to strap yourself in, because this is an enormously rewarding thrill ride that will also take you to dark places in the human sub-conscious that you would rather avoid. It is as rewarding as it is disquieting. It is not just a great summer action movie, but I dare say a film of significance.
Let me warn you parents from the outset that this is not a movie for emotionally vulnerable adults or children under the age of 12. Simply stated, the premise that drives the plot is profoundly heartbreaking. In many ways it reminds me of Steven Spielberg’s overlooked science fiction film “A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2000).
While I remain tremendously drawn to “A.I.”, it is impossible to describe just how difficult this movie is to watch. In a future where heartbroken parents can replace a dead child with a robotic boy made to completely resemble their offspring, what would you do if this innocent creation has become a threat to your family for reasons that it doesn’t understand? The scene where the mother, crying uncontrollably, abandons the little “boy” deep in the woods as she drives away with him yelling “Mama, mama” is one of the most emotionally crushing moments in the history of cinema.
Similarly, in this “Apes” prequel, James Franco plays a scientist using chimpanzees to study the effect of certain drugs that hopefully will cure Alzheimer’s in humans. Forced to abandon his work after a tragic accident, it is discovered that one of the experimental chimps has given birth, and Franco reluctantly takes the baby chimp home for what he hopes is a temporary stay. But the chimp, named Caesar, quickly begins to demonstrate some enormous intellectual acuity, including an ability to learn sign language, and Franco makes the fateful decision to keep him.
Caesar becomes a loving member of Franco’s small household over the ensuing years, which includes a close attachment to Franco’s aging father (a convincing John Lithgow) who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. However, if you have seen the previews, you know that Caesar has become very protective of the vulnerable old man, and tragedy awaits when he perceives that Lithgow is being physically accosted by a neighbor.
Forced by Court Order to take Caesar to what is perceived to be an Animal Rescue Shelter for apes, the gentle Caesar soon learns that he has been dropped into a simian hell. Like the legendary E.T., Caesar simply wants to return to the only home he knows, and he is left bewildered as the unsuspecting Franco battles the authorities for his release. Quite frankly, Franco’s visits with his incarcerated Caesar will likely bring tears to your eyes.
If you are still not convinced of the spiritual depth of this remarkable film, then imagine Caesar, reduced to solitary confinement in his sterile cage, drawing an outline on his wall of the window that he looked through to observe the outside world from his room with Franco and his father. Like it or not, this film forces the viewer to look into the dark, cobweb encrusted corners of the human soul, and it is a journey that is as mesmerizing as it is uncomfortable.
Certainly, Mr. Franco does just fine playing the uncomplicated Will Rodman, a man who loves Caesar but is blissfully unaware of the consequences his experimental drugs have unleashed on both apes and man. Frieda Pinto holds her own as his veterinarian girlfriend, and Mr. Lithgow embraces the role of a loving father fighting the ravages of an incurable disease. Also, look for Tom Felton, the sinister Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” movies, playing an equally hateful caretaker at the rescue center where Caesar is housed.
But it is not the human actors who create the magic of this extraordinary film, but rather the visual and special effects created by Colin Decker, Tony Lazarowich, Shaun Friedberg “Pyrokinesis” and their remarkable team. In addition, the true star of this film is the talented Andy Serkis, who does for Caesar what he did for Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy.
Incredibly no live apes were used in this film, all being digitally recreated. Spared the artificiality inherent where humans appear in ape costume, no matter how artfully done, the simian hordes appearing here are real and authentic, and you literally feel their love, anger and frustration. There isn’t one false moment when they are on the screen.
In addition, it is not an exaggeration to say that the special effects of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” rise nearly to the level as that seen in the gorgeous, revolutionary “Avatar”. The camera literally follows the apes as they swing freely from California’s giant redwoods, assorted buildings and the Golden Gate Bridge, and the resulting visual and emotional effect is dazzling. Can there be a greater compliment for an alleged summer action movie than to also classify it as a first rate work of art?
As Caesar becomes convinced that he has been abandoned and for the first time in his life begins to bond with others of his kind, in this case the numerous other apes similarly held with him in captivity, you feel a strange sense of identity with their quest in the same way as when Kirk Douglas led his army of slaves in revolt in Stanley Kubrick’s classic “Spartacus” (1960). The only question is whether he will escape the bonds of his captivity with his small army of followers or die at the hands of a superior human force as did Spartacus.
The battle between the desperate apes and we humans plays out on a grand scale, win or lose, Caesar knows that home is no longer to be found living with humans.
For those of you familiar with any of the other “Planet of the Apes” movies, I would encourage you to at least watch the original one starring Charleton Heston that was released in 1968. In particular, it would be helpful to recall that the apes called the captive Heston “Brighteyes”, and you should also have no trouble remembering Heston’s memorable line when he screamed at his captors when he finally regained his ability to speak. These critical moments are turned on their head in this prequel, and are ingeniously, not to mention seamlessly, woven in to central moments of the climactic ape/human encounter.
I think it is fair to say that only the most callous can possibly resist the inherent charms of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. Director Rupert Wyatt has given us a cinematic tour de force that is a timely reminder of why movies matter. This preposterous summer film excites your senses at every level. It makes you care.
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