Spectacular 'Apes' Doesn't Monkey Around
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
In this age of diminished expectations, many film lovers -- critics and paying viewers alike -- have come to approach any given summer blockbuster with some small mad hope that maybe, just maybe, it won't suck. That maybe it'll provide, maybe, just a smidgen of the entertainment and sensationalistic value it promises. This expectation is often particularly feeble when the summer blockbuster in question is an attempted reboot, or direr still, an attempted re-reboot, of a beloved blockbuster classic and/or its concomitant franchise offshoot.
Such would be the case, trepidation-wise, as far as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" -- a reconsideration of the how-apes-came-to-rule-our-planet mythology first put forward in the '70's films "Escape From the Planet of the Apes," "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" and "Battle for the Planet of the Apes" -- is concerned. Even those who don't have a particularly religious attitude toward the original classic sci-fi franchise could be forgiven for greeting this prospect with some slight dread. So it's my pleasure to report that not only does "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" not suck, but is in fact very nearly close to completely awesome, and is the best sci-fi blockbuster of the summer, in a walk, even.
The picture begins both promisingly and unpromisingly. James Franco plays Will Rodman, a genius medical researcher working for a profit-hungry futuristic pharma. Having made a breakthrough on a brain-recovery drug, Rodman paces around, badgering his slickster boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo), saying things like, "We're ready," and, "One shot is all I need." Yeesh. Soon enough, though, we're in a very effective sequence cross-cutting Rodman and Jacobs' enthusiastic pitch to the board and the complete freakout of the lab animal on whom said breakthrough was made. The sequence ends with a bang, and then a twist, and from that point on, despite occasional provisional lapses into lazy storytelling (a period of eight years elapses, and the characters never age; the aforementioned brain-recovery drug remains available to Rodman despite the plug having been pulled on his project; and one scene suggests that Rodman and Jacobs haven't had a single conversation in the aforementioned eight years), the movie really keeps its eye on the ball.
Super-smart adopted chimp Caesar, beloved of Rodman, Rodman's Alzheimer's stricken dad (John Lithgow) (it's for his sake -- "personal feelings" that Rodman's boss has advised him against getting too caught up with -- that Rodman's so passionate about developing the brain-recovery drug) and a kindly, and wise, and hot veterinarian (Freida Pinto), is brilliant and agile but has a lousy time on first contact with the outside world. And the more he encounters humans, the more he's oppressed by them, and once he's locked up in a "primate sanctuary" run by a shady Brian Cox and looked after by a nasty Tom Felton, he really begins to acquire revolutionary consciousness. After which he rallies his fellow primates to assert their identities and forge a more lasting union, as it were.
Caesar is embodied by a motion-captured and CGI-manipulated Andy Serkis, who was Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "King Kong" in the Peter Jackson remake. His work here is superb, and the film's nods to the classic originals are affectionate and apt, and some of the references are cleverer still: Naming a particularly nasty chimp who becomes Caesar's lieutenant/enforcer Koba was a nice touch. And while some of the CGI still tends to the cartoonish, for the most part it's seamlessly integrated into both the action scenes and the more character-driven stuff.
And the climactic battle between ape and man, enacted on the Golden Gate Bridge, is more than just state-of-the-art sci-fi effects-driven filmmaking; it's utterly inspired filmmaking, period. Here's hoping director Rupert Wyatt and co-screenwriters (and producers) Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver stay on the case for any future "Apes" films; one gets the feeling here that they've got both the chops and imagination to deliver quite a bit more exhilaration in this department.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.