‘Apes’ rises to the occasion

Film review

In this image released by Twentieth Century Fox, Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis is shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes ." (AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox)

In this image released by Twentieth Century Fox, Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis, and James Franco are shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes ."  The prequel "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," opening in U.S. theaters Friday, features chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans crafted through performance-capture. It is the same technology used for the giant gorilla in Peter Jackson's 2005 "King Kong," with the same actor who did Kong, Andy Serkis, playing the lead chimp in the prequel.(AP Photo/Twentieth Century Fox)

Genetically enhanced chimpanzee Caesar (created by Andy Serkis and computer-generated imagery) shares emotional moments with his human family members (John Lithgow and James Franco) in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a worthwhile movie.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” comes at an interesting time. It comes at a time when it certainly seems that the apes could do a better job of running the planet than we human beings are able to do, and it uncannily comes at about the same time as the release of the documentary “Project Nim,” which is about a chimp named Nim Chimpsky (named after linguist and leftist Noam Chomsky) that (who?) in the 1970s was raised as human being and was taught sign language — just like the protagonist chimp Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is good summer fare. It stretches believability a bit too often, but it’s great entertainment and it has some interesting ideas and touches on some important subjects, such as the ethical treatment of animals and the ethics of meddling with genetics (which the much lesser film “Splice” also explored). And besides, it’s about apes that take on human traits and eventually supplant human beings, so I suppose that it’s kind of pointless to insist upon strict believability throughout the film anyway.

Salon.com’s review of “Rise” slams star James Franco for not having been a stronger presence in the film, but hey, the movie isn’t titled “Rise of the Planet of James Franco.” We go to see a “Planet of the Apes” movie to see the apes. The human beings that appear in these films are secondary, just as they are portrayed as being in the films themselves.

Franco does a decent job as the scientist who is responsible for the genetic tweaking that inadvertently creates a virus that will wipe out most of mankind and that creates Caesar, the intellectually advanced chimpanzee who goes on to become the founding father, so to speak, of the apes that/who we first saw in the 1968 film “Planet of the Apes,” to which “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” pays homage by making numerous, mostly funny references.

Freida Pinto (of “Slumdog Millionaire” fame) does a fine job as Franco’s girlfriend, and thankfully, the theme of the level-headed girlfriend of the (mad?) scientist admonishing him about the potential dangers of his experiments (like in 1986’s “The Fly” or in 2009’s “Splice,” in which the dynamic is reversed and the mad scientist is the girlfriend and it’s boyfriend who is admonishing her) isn’t beaten into the ground.

John Lithgow plays Franco’s father, who is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, which Franco’s character is trying to cure. Lithgow’s character is cared for by Franco at home, and Lithgow’s, Franco’s and Pinto’s characters become a four-member family along with the character of Caesar, who was created by actor Andy Serkis of “Lord of the Rings'” Gollum fame and by computer-generated imagery.

The CGI in “Rise” is masterful, although some of it, such as the portrayal of the infant Caesar, could have used some improvement to look more life-like and less cartoon-like. Still, the CGI that was done well was done stunningly well.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” isn’t only about CGI and action. The emotional difficulty of being separated from a pet or a loved one — Caesar finds himself impounded with other “dangerous” apes that have not been genetically altered as he has been — is portrayed fairly well, as is the question of what the lines are between a pet and a family member and an animal and a human being.

That said, it seems that Franco’s character would be more distraught by Caesar’s long incarceration than he is portrayed to be — for a while in the movie it seems as though Franco’s character has forgotten about the incarcerated Caesar altogether — and it seems that when Franco’s character and Caesar must finally part for good, Franco’s character isn’t all that torn up about it, when I sure the hell would be were I in his shoes.

Two more criticisms: The mishap in the board room in front of investors, in addition to being highly unlikely in the way that it unfolds, seems to have been ripped off from the mishap-in-the-board-room scene that we already saw in “Splice.” And we already saw a climactic showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge in “X-Men: The Last Stand,” so I don’t think that we needed another one this soon. Still, some cheesiness aside, the climactic action sequence on the bridge is done fairly well. 

Overall, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is good entertainment, raises important issues, engages our empathic abilities (hopefully most of us still have those, to at least some extent) and is a fairly worthy prequel to “Planet of the Apes.”

My grade: B+

P.S. It seems kind of freaky to me that the original “Planet of the Apes” movie came out the same year that I was born, and I find it interesting that it came out in such a turbulent year. I’m going to have to watch that movie again, now that I’ve watched its prequel.

I’ve yet to see “Project Nim,” by the way, but I intend to when it comes here to Sacramento, which should be soon.

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1 Comment

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One response to “‘Apes’ rises to the occasion

  1. The technology and performances that bring the apes to life make the film a must-see for any modern movie fan, but it’s the emotion and humanity of Caesar’s story that makes the film a must-see for any movie fan at all. Good Review! Check out mine when you can!

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