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You'll Never Make a Monkey Out of Me
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (DVD + Digital Copy)
Member Name: SWSt
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (DVD + Digital Copy)
Advantages: Superb special effects combined with an intelligent story
Disadvantages: Some underwritten human characters
Yes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is very effects heavy, but they are an integral part of the film, not its sole selling point. For once, provide a means of telling the story effectively, rather than being the story itself. They may be impressive, but Rise has other elements which equal or surpass them, such as an intelligent script which always entertains but rarely preaches; or strong characterisation and some excellent set pieces.
Unlike the Tim Burton "re-imagining" (awful word, awful film), Rise does not seek to ape (sorry!) previous entries in the series. There are no time/space travelling exploits (bar one single, brief reference) and Rise is set approximately in a world that is still pretty much recognisably 21st century. Sure, there are references back to 1968's original (most pleasingly "Get your paws off me, you damn dirty ape", although there are other more subtle ones), but this is very much its own film and can be watched in isolation, having never seen an Apes film before.
The plot sees scientist Will Rodman researching a cure for Alzheimer's - a disease which afflicts his father. Using an experimental vaccine on chimps, he discovers that one of the side effects is to make them smarter. When his research is shut down following an unfortunate "incident", Rodman adopts one of the baby chimps to stop it from being destroyed.
Any consideration of Rise of the Planet of the Apes really has to start with those special effects. Thanks to another performance capture effort by Andy Serkis, they are excellent. Gone are the slightly disturbing chimp-human hybrids that have characterised previous Ape films, replaced instead by some incredible computer generated creatures. You might think that after Gollum, we'd got used to what performance capture technology can do, yet whilst Rise doesn't necessarily advance the medium significantly, it nevertheless provides convincing special effects on a level possibly not been seen before.
Each of the main apes is given real personality. Indeed, in most cases, they easily outshine their human actor counterparts (which they are clearly meant to do). Buck the gorilla is a force of nature, full of barely contained violence and brute strength, yet displays a fierce loyalty to lead ape Caesar that is touching. The orang-utan is appropriately sad looking and whilst it is the one primate that comes dangerously close to looking a little puppet-like at times, it still has a lot of character.
Best of all is Caesar who is a character, just as real as Gollum was, fully fleshed out and superbly realised. Whether he is swinging joyfully through the trees as a playful young chimp, commanding his troops in the final climactic battle or displaying sadness following his perceived betrayal by Will, Serkis brings real passion and life to Caesar, giving heart, emotion and life to a bunch of computer pixels. The animation on Caesar's face is exceptionally convincing and, despite the fact that he doesn't talk (mostly), you are never in any doubt what he is thinking or feeling.
Yet, superb though these effects are, they are just one important element for the film's success. Aware that effects alone do not a film make, Rise mixes in healthy dollops of strong plot (interesting without being revolutionary) and emotion (heart-rending without ever becoming mawkish).
What is most important is how all these elements blend together. The story is well told and interesting. It might be routine stuff, but it's well-paced and effective. It's also not dragged out for too long. For once, here is a Hollywood film that doesn't feel the need to add over-extended build-ups, flabby middle sections or over-blown finales. It does what it needs to do; then it ends - a rare event in Hollywood these days.
Character s are also developed effectively so that you actually care about them. Again, the character of Caesar is a good example of building a character in such a way that we understand his motivations, fears and thought processes. It's always a sign that a film has overcome its reliance on special effects when you are so emotionally engaged that you are sad when one of the creatures is injured or killed.
Against this background of monkeys and special effects, the human cast don't stand out quite as well, but still fare better than they would in most blockbusters. James Franco is excellent as Will Rodman, the scientist who "adopts" the young Caesar. His relationship with the monkey is both touching and convincing and will generate a genuine emotional response in the viewer. John Lithgow turns in a slightly tragic performance as Will's Alzheimer-suffering father Charles. Again, Lithgow brings real heart to his performance, making Alzheimers an all-too-personal disease, rather than a convenient "Disease of the Month" plot point. It's a shame that the script feels the need to include a superfluous romantic interest (a good, but unnecessary Freida Pinto), but this is a Hollywood blockbuster, so I guess you have to expect it.
Brian Cox is also having a lot of fun as Chimp Sanctuary owner, John Landon. Playing it with a barely concealed smirk, Landon is a mix of X-Men's Colonel Stryker and his Hannibal Lecktor (yes, I have spelt that correctly!) from Manhunter. It's a fun, slightly hammy performance that should jar with the more serious tone of the rest of the film, but somehow works.
Add in a stirring, final battle (which will definitely see you rooting for the apes), some fantastic set-pieces and a strong ending (providing you stay after the credits have started) and you have the summer's strongest blockbuster so far.
Super 8's "dream team" collaboration between Steven Spielberg and JJ Abrams may have resulted in more column inches, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the better film on pretty much every level. A sequel may be inevitable, but for once, that might not be such a bad thing if it is handled with the same degree of intelligence and care.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Running time: approx. 105 minutes
© Copyright SWSt 2011
Summary: Hands-down best blockbuster of 2011 so far