Thursday, 15 March 2012
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, John Lithgow
By Alan Bacchus
Revolution is in the air – Apes revolution. It’s hard to believe this Apes franchise continues to fascinate people and have legs. The original film was high-concept science fiction at its best – metaphors for our own human frailties in the real world at present. The concept here, of course, is a future world turned upside-down, where apes have replaced man as the dominant species. Rupert Wyatt’s take on the series has him going back in time for an origin story, something we were first exposed to with 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, but with little resemblance other than the setting in the past. Here, the depth and complexity of the CG-enhanced Apes characters tips the scales past the uniformly cardboard human characters resulting in a surprisingly absorbing, exciting and fresh invigoration of this series.
Of course, the first film based on Pierre Boulle’s original novel was the best. Nothing will take away from the power of Charlton Heston’s discovery of apes riding horseback wrangling up human slaves, or the astonishing revelation of the Statue of Liberty lying collapsed on the beach at the end of the film. There are no moments or twists as such in this picture, and the film doesn’t need them. We know the story, we know where it leads and the thrill here is showing the tragic irony of hundreds of years of man’s blind arrogance playing with science, and the catharsis of having animals fight back against a lifetime of subjugation by their higher intelligence ‘superior beings’.
In this case, all the blame falls on James Franco’s character, Will Rodman, a biological scientist looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. Of course, he’s experimenting on chimps and when one of them starts to exhibit signs of intelligence his superiors in the corporate office take notice and encourage it. But after the experiment fails and the chimps escape, they’re all put down with the exception of one cute little infant named Caesar (Serkis). Will brings up Caesar like a child in his home along with his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (Lithgow) and lovely girlfriend (Pinto).
The ethics of raising a chimp with humans never enters Will’s mind, but the subjugation of his animal instincts are offset with his broadening intelligence. All the while, this internal conflict simmers within Caesar. After an anger-fuelled attack on a neighbour, Caesar is forced to go to an animal shelter managed by a heartless and cruel Brian Cox and Tom Felton. Here, Caesar uses his intelligence to communicate with his fellow simian prisoners and plot escape, revenge and ultimately the takeover of the world.
Admittedly, the human characters are uniformly forgettable and sometimes laughable. Franco, in particular, should never have been in this film. It actually takes a special kind of actor to make pseudo-science and other expository stock dialogue sound believable. Franco’s lazy acting style, which works in comedy and other stoner-persona performances like Milk, is not a good fit here. In fact, he seems to be in the same funk as his Oscar hosting gig. Everyone else is a cardboard characterization in the extreme. Brian Cox and Tom Felton as the cruel animal shelter caretakers are low-grade comic book villains at best, and the money-grubbing corporate suits are similarly one-dimensional.
But the complexity of the ape characters more than makes up for these deficiencies. Andy Serkis, who by motion capture portrays Caesar from birth to his ascension as leader of the Ape revolution, is phenomenal. The technology has little to do with the performance. I bet if Serkis were put into the old make-up style of the original series, he’d give the same quality performance. The fact is we can see the development of intelligence in his delicate facial movements. As we see Caesar grow up in the company of Will, a prison of its own sorts, sequestered from his own kind, we can’t help but identify with him. The need to be free is a universal quality of all living species, but self-determination is distinctly human. And the discovery of this trait within Caesar occurs gradually and with subtlety. That said, it also helps that the apes actually look like apes. The Weta-Digital CG technology achieves this in spades.
Despite the shameful characterization of the animal shelter, these scenes sufficiently put us on the side of the apes and by the end we desperately want Caesar and his growing army of prisoners to throw some beatdowns on the humans. There’s very little action in the film until the third act, and even when the intensity is ramped up there’s more logic than we would expect from the big scenes.
And at the end of the day, Apes accomplishes its goal as a continuation of its high-concept antecedents. Without overwhelming proselytization, we can’t help but think twice about the effect of keeping animals as pets, or using them to experiment with in science, or as beasts of burden. And at the very least we will recognize the precariousness of our place in the bio-lifecycle of the planet.