Because of two things, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” exceeds our low expectations. First, as a summer blockbuster movie, the movie is the technical improvement which shows us how far CGI technology has been advanced in these years. Second, as a drama about the dawn of the evolutionary revolution, the technology used in the movie allows us to be engaged in the story of its character who struggles through his plight to eventually find his place in the new order of the nature to come. Though we can see that (this is not a spoiler) the end of the human civilization is about to come, we do not feel bad about that much, and that is one of the main achievements of this surprisingly entertaining movie.
As many of you know, the movie is the reboot of the famous SF series started with “Planet of the Apes”(1968), which was followed by four lesser sequels, and then remaked in 2001 by Tim Burton with a dissatisfying result. While there are several amusing small connections between the movie and the previous movies, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is an almost completely new story about how the apes come to revolt against the human society. There is a lot of the possibilities about the sequels in the end, and, if so, they will probably continue their story of their own.
How do the apes evolve enough to fight against humanity? The reason is something I and my colleagues in the biological science department will have lots, lots of amusement(and laugh) after watching this movie. The biologist Will Rodman(James Franco) is trying to find the cure for the Alzheimer’s disease his father is suffering from. With his latest genetically engineered virus injected to chimpanzees, he seems to have a major breakthrough. However, his chimpanzee, which has gotten a lot smarter than before, becomes suddenly frantic due to a good reason and runs amuck in the laboratory building. Animal instinct is hard to control even with intelligence; we human beings know that too well.
At the same time, unfortunately, Will is doing the presentation for the board meeting which will judge whether his project should be continued or not, and this incident leaves a pretty bad impression on the board members, who are shocked by a sudden attack by his test animal. His boss immediately orders to terminate Will’s project and kill every test animal. Will decides to keep a baby chimpanzee born in his laboratory and raise it at his house where he lives with his ailing father, while continuing his study in private.
The chimpanzee, named Ceaser, is played by Andy Serkis. Unlike the actors in the previous movies, Serkis does not wear make-up this time. Thanks to Weta Digital, Serkis’ terrific performance is rendered into the CGI character on the screen, and it is marvelous to look at how his performance is effectively expressed through the performance capture technology which has been improved with more freedom than before. Serkis is no stranger to the performance capture technology; he already played the memorable CGI characters such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy and that unforgettable giant ape in “King King”(2005). His performance in the movie deserves to be added to his belt as another impressive acting juxtaposed with the special effects – too bad his performance is not eligible yet for the Academy Award.
While keeping impressing Will with his rapidly growing intelligence, Ceaser has a happy time at Will’s home with the occasional visits to the redwood forest outside San Francisco. Soon he recognizes his lonely position as the outsider between the human beings and the apes. In Will’s household, he is an equal family member, but he is still regarded as an animal with sharp teeth to the people outside. Because of the unfortunate incident between Will’s father and the aggressive neighbor in next door, Ceaser is sent to the facility where he is abused by the sadistic guards and ostracized by the other apes who instinctively sense that he is different from them.
With Serkis and his fellow actors transformed into the apes, the movie does a very good job of giving us a bunch of vivid CGI characters to be led by Ceaser. Some of them are actually given distinctive qualities as the crucial supporting characters. I especially liked a gentle Orangutan named Maurice, who is wiser than others(except Ceaser, of course) and naturally becomes a confidant to Ceaser through sign language. His name is probably the tribute to Maurice Evans, who played an Orangutan character in “Planet of the Apes”. As a matter of fact, there are some references from that movie, including that famous line shouted by Charlton Heston.
While he endures the abusive treatment, Ceaser’s story follows that of the leader who leads the uprising to shake the order of his oppressive world, so the third act of the movie is about their battle unfolded in the streets of San Francisco and, later, on the Golden Gate Bridge. Unlike that dreadful “Transformers 3″, it is exciting to watch the apes do lots of actions for their survival, because there is the story driving the apes to that showdown and we have accepted them as the real characters. In addition, they are a lot cleverer than mindless CGIs we have encountered in these days. It is kind of touching to see that CGI character keeps his decency while busy with fighting for his right – maybe the Earth taken by him and his fellow apes is not a bad thing after all.
While enjoying Ceaser and his comrades, I found the weakness of the movie is a little too transparent to be ignored. The human characters played by the good actors including James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, and David Oyelowo. They do their jobs as required, and they share the scenes with CGIs without any awkwardness, but their characters are mostly more or less than the plot devices or the obligatory bystanders. Lithgow has some poignancy as a senile father who gets temporary joy and happiness in his last remaining years, but he is limited by his character like others. Pinto, a lovely actress, is wasted as a veterinarian who becomes close to Will and Ceaser.
But the apes save the day, and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is the best summer blockbuster movie of this year along with “Harry Potter 7: Part 2”. I admire how the movie made me care about the apes revolting against us with its good story, and I do have some expectations for the sequels. It is really nice to see that not all action blockbuster movies have to be brainless assaults on our neuron system.