Tuesday, August 30, 2011


I may have a more highly developed sense of empathy for primates than most, having directed a short film called Going Ape, but it would be dishonest to say that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is anything short of the blockbuster of the summer.  I'm as surprised to be writing this as you must be to read it, but you'll have to see it yourself to judge if I've completely taken leave of my senses.  The pseudo-science-fiction set-up involves a new alzheimer's medication called ALZ 112, which endows the apes of the title with accelerated brain function.  The drug is being tested by James Franco, who is mild but believable as a biochemist with a personal agenda (his father, played by John Lithgow suffers from alzheimer's).  When his boss threatens to put down the apes due to complications during testing, Franco rescues a newborn orangutan and raises him privately in his home, as the Marcel to his Ross -- it's like Friends gone awry.

There is something altogether kooky about the Addams family bonds that are formed between Franco, his girlfriend (played by Frieda Pinto) and the aptly named 'Caesar,' who ultimately leads the ape uprising, in order to escape a nasty situation at an animal detention centre.  The concept will be familiar for anyone who saw Renny Harlin's b-movie classic Deep Blue Sea, in which an alzheimer's drug inadvertently increases the brain-power of the killer sharks at a waterbound medical facility.  The ending is also rather blatantly forecasted by the title, so the big surprise is how many unpredictable little turns the story takes.  In a movie with such a grand scale, the screenplay offers an extraordinary number of small details that render the characters and themes most immediate.

Don't get me wrong, nobody's going to reinvent the cinematic wheel with a planet of the apes film but this one gets the formula right and even gives us pause occasionally to think about hubris and the ill effects of good intentions when they aren't fully thought through.  The writers have clearly digested their material and mined it for the uncanny.  They have also successfully translated many of their more theoretical ideas into images that are both exciting and frightening.  Many of these moments occur during the inevitable ape revolution which culminates in a battle atop the Golden Gate Bridge.  In the capable hands of director Rupert Wyatt, we see more of the bridge than we will ever likely experience (short of the apocalypse) and in spite of all the CGI, he makes sense of the chaos through his expert staging and editing.

When the battle is momentarily interrupted by the fog, I couldn't help but smile at such ingenious storytelling.  Yep, that's the Golden Gate Bridge alright.  This little dose of reality helps to balance all the unreality of the unfolding situation and this is just one of many examples in the film.  I surrendered to the filmmakers because I knew I was in good hands.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is what summer blockbuster movies are supposed to be: a great ride.  Even the ending strikes a tone I didn't quite see coming.  And, the performance of the computer-generated Caesar (created through motion-capture technology) by actor Andy Serkis may very well be the best performance by an actor (human or otherwise) that I have seen all year.