Sunday, August 21, 2011

Everyone Needs a Damn, Dirty Hand to Hold On To: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

As the man behind the movements of Gollum and King Kong, Andy Serkis is undoubtedly the most famous motion-capture actor in Hollywood. Of course, that’s a lot like being the most famous stuntman; if Serkis and digital animators do their jobs, it should seem to the audience as if he was never there. Over the years, Serkis has appeared sans digital “costume” in numerous films, including King Kong (where in addition to the gorilla he was also Lumpy the cook) and The Prestige, but, like Anthony Daniels before him, playing high profile characters hasn’t led to a high profile. Many are the moviegoers who could imitate Gollum but not recognize the man behind the shriveled figure if he sat beside them at the local multiplex. Not that Serkis seems to mind. Asked in a recent episode of NPR’s Fresh Air whether his agent ever pressures him to take more live-action roles, Serkis said he didn’t draw a distinction between the two styles of acting. “They’re just characters to me,” he said. “The only caveat is: Is it a good story, is it a good character?”

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the answers to those questions are “Yes” and “Yes,” but only as they apply to Serkis’ Caesar. A chimpanzee whose intelligence has been chemically enhanced, Caesar is the most perspicacious character on screen, whether he’s in the play area at the rescue center where he orchestrates a primate revolt or somewhere else in San Francisco, where he is unceasingly surrounded by mouth-breathing humans. Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have created a story that allows a mostly nonspeaking ape to evoke his cunning and emotions through the careful CGI-enhanced mannerisms of Serkis and the thoughtful direction of Rupert Wyatt, but they have left the humans around Caesar so void of nuance that it often feels as if they are being played by actors weighed down by inflexible rubber suits. That’s the good and the bad of it. For all the summer movies that spend an inordinate amount of screen time on CGI spectaculars that are stapled to the film’s edges like flowers on a parade float (the Pirates of the Caribbean sequels have been particular offenders in this regard), Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a partial antidote. It is never more emotionally or intellectually relevant than when it’s digitally driven.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the prequel to the 1968 Charlton Heston vehicle and the sequels and re-imaginings the original inspired. In a cinema landscape increasingly filled by reboots and redos (to say nothing of barely concealed ripoffs), the franchise origin story prequel is perhaps the perfect marriage of profit-minded brand familiarity and audience-serving artistic license (not that it helped George Lucas). Although the endpoint is defined, screenwriters and directors (should) have ultimate creative flexibility in regard to getting there. Planet of the Apes (1968) is particularly ripe for this prequel treatment because the otherworldliness of its premise was the core ingredient of its now famous “Holy shit!” conclusion. And as much fun as it is to watch a man trying to survive in a seemingly alien planet of advanced ape civilization, it’s an equally intriguing exercise to see how this world becomes that one. While a mysterious chemical reaction – the sci-fi writer’s Get Out of Jail Free card – is a core ingredient of this origin story, Jaffa and Silver have grounded their tale in human greed, big pharma and the white superiority complex, which is enough to make Rise of the Planet of the Apes fall somewhere between electrifyingly plausible and hauntingly inevitable (though admittedly far closer to the former).

Even by the end of this picture, the apes haven’t taken over Earth, but they already seem more advanced than their human counterparts. James Franco’s Will Rodman, the scientist who raises Caesar, exists mostly to spout plot exposition, usually spelling out what we can tell just by watching: principally that Caesar is smarter than the average bear, chimp and even human his age. That said, Will comes in handy when it’s time to convey Caesar’s desire to reject his human upbringing. Caesar’s revolt is motivated in part by the trauma of being abandoned at the rescue center and being abused by one of the caretakers there, but mostly Caesar responds to his evolving awareness that he’ll always be a second-class citizen in human society. (No matter how many times Will insists that Caesar isn’t a pet, the leash he keeps handy says otherwise.) Caesar is simply in search of a place where he belongs, and he spends most of the movie adrift. Early on, he gazes through the circular window in his attic bedroom at Will’s house, growing excited by the outside world and wanting to interact with it. Later, after being left at the rescue center, Caesar draws that same window on his cell wall and longingly presses his forehead against it, wishing he were back in the warmth of the only home he ever knew. When, later still, Caesar sponges that window sketch from his cell wall, it doesn’t signal a comfort within ape society so much as his growing acceptance that he can never return to the place he came from.

These themes of disorientation, loneliness and aimlessness translate so well because they are typical to the human experience. Caesar is a stand-in for any adolescent who must figure out who he is in order to figure out where he belongs, and who finds his voice in the process. At times, Wyatt’s film feels less like a prequel in the gravitational pull of the 1968 original than like a typical coming-of-age story enacted by an ape. Rise of the Planet of the Apes alludes to its cinematic pedigree throughout but it exists independently of that franchise, standing assuredly on its two feet. Given that the film leaves off with the apes having simply liberated themselves from bondage, there could be room for another film or two between this and Planet of the Apes, if someone wanted to fill out the franchise in detail. But for those prequel sequels to match the – admittedly inconsistent – power of this picture, they would need to remain fixated on Caesar’s emotional journey, more closely resembling Michael Corleone’s descent into power-crazed madness than Jurassic Park. Alas, big-budget, CGI-dominated series don’t have a great track record in this regard. So for now we can simply appreciate that Rise of the Planet of the Apes exhibits something that so many effects-driven films lack: a human touch.


Adam Zanzie said...

Hmm. I didn't even know Serkis was attached to this. I'll probably skip this movie since I'm not much of an Apes enthusiast and since the human characters sound incredibly banal (the way you've described Franco's performance makes me fear that we're just getting more of the same from him), but if I weren't so short on cash recently I would probably see it -- if only for Serkis' performance as Caesar. Nice review, Jason.

Richard Bellamy said...

Glad you enjoyed the evolution of Caesar as much as I did - especially during two repeat viewings. As you say, this is a "coming-of-age story enacted by an ape," and that makes it engaging. And I like how you compare Caesar's transformation with "Michael Corleone's descent into power-crazed madness." Serkis and CGI track that transformation well in the character of Caesar.

Sam Juliano said...

"Caesar is a stand-in for any adolescent who must figure out who he is in order to figure out where he belongs, and who finds his voice in the process."

Indeed. This is also most ironically the slant of the recently-released documentary feature by James Marsh (PROJECT NIM) where a real-life chimpanzee goes through the same trials and tribulations as Caesar, and like the simulated ape, he becomes disillusioned and determined to sound the rallying cry. Jaffa and Silver have grasped the unavoidable conclusion reached by Marsh that there will always be a point of falling out in the current sway of human priorities.

Excllent review here as always.