Friday, January 6, 2012

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

     I think most people look at Planet of the Apes (1968) and see little more than the talking gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans.  It would certainly explain why every film after the first ventures more into the realm of silly science fiction and away from intelligent social commentary.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) tries – very hard, in fact – to honor the legacy of the original film and subsequent important canon.  At the same time, it manages to keep the science as soft as possible and the action supremely PG-13, thus making it clearly identifiable as a popcorn flick.
     One of the things that struck me was how unmemorable most of the human characters were.  Sure, they are important to the story, but I doubt I could have named more than two of the characters after having seen the movie (defaulting to recognizing the actors or the stereotypical role they had been given).  Now, this is largely a problem with my attention to the details of the film, but I feel that if more attention had been paid to crafting the characters I would have been much more invested in them.  As so much of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is centered on the humans, I kind of feel that director Rupart Wyatt dropped the ball here.  For a blockbuster, that isn't a problem – just get to the CGI apes and the havoc they can cause – but given the cult status and social commentary of the original, I was hoping for more.
     I liked most of the CGI (Caesar's pants being a constant source of why? for me) and thought that it did a great job of seeming realistic without ever threatening to look real.  The chimpanzees had a range in looks that seemed to borrow from several films – Jumanji (1995) for Casear, Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (1984) for Rocket, and Tim Burton's horrible Planet of the Apes (2001) for Koba – and helped give them character and distinction.  I think I would have enjoyed the action sequences much more were I not so violently pro-human; hey, I've seen the world the apes have and I know how it ends.  I'd rather root for the humans, bad eggs and all.
     I would have liked a more realistic approach to the science in the movie.  I was also supremely disappointed that Dr. Hassline neither appeared nor merited a mention (if there was one, I missed it).  He is such an important figure in the canon of the series that it felt wrong for him not to be included.  On the other hand, there were so many callbacks to the first film (including a very unfortunate lifting of the original's most famous line) that it was clear the writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were willing to be faithful to that which had come before (something Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman were unwilling to do for 2009's Star Trek).  I think I only found one moment where I was thinking, that's not how it is supposed to happen...well, two if one considers how the movie ends.  Come on, the plague is supposed to hit the pets, people.
     The story's multiple storylines –one concerning the recklessness of human enterprise and the other about Ceasar's recognition of his duty to his tribe – don't exactly blend in seamlessly, but they don't detract from one another.  I feel that there wasn't enough real to root for the humans, but as a fan of the original, I am solidly predisposed to believe that the worst human world is better than the best ape one.  Will Rodman (Franco) is a weak character who endeavors to do good things, including saving the world from Alzheimer's.  Without his father, Charles (John Lithgow), there is no real connective tissue to allow Will to advance the story.  Indeed, Charles and Caesar seemed a much more compelling set of characters and Will the plot device to move them along.  Caesar's own story, escaping the cruelties of the human world, probably deserved its own film, but I doubt that the casual fan would have understood it without a set-up.
     For whatever reason, I didn't feel a need to see this in the theater.  Maybe it was just wariness about how Burton's version had turned out, or maybe the casting of James Franco as the human lead.  It certainly didn't feel like watching it at home robbed it of any scope or majesty.  That is not to say that the movie didn't look good, because it did.  But it didn't try to be grand (and maybe that is a good thing given how grounded the "Apes" movies were in the cinematography).  Maybe that is something best to be saved in whatever final conflict is set between man and ape in a future film.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be the third best Apes film – I'd still put it fourth, but I have a soft spot for Beneath the Planet of the Apes (1970) – and it doesn't feel like an embarrassment.  I am going to count it as a win for honoring the legacy.

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