Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011) movie poster

(2011) director Rupert Wyatt
viewed: 08/13/2011 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a better film than one might expect.  Heck, it might be one of the best summer movies of 2011.  Who’da thunk that?

After Tim Burton tried to re-boot the film and television series in 2001 with Planet of the Apes, it seemed that this franchise would find no foothold in the 21st Century.  When I first heard of this new “re-boot”/prequel, with James Franco to star and a director, Andy Serkis to act in motion-capture as the lead ape Caesar, Rupert Wyatt with whom I was unfamiliar, I saw little if anything to glom onto.  But as the trailers hit the cinemas, I was struck that it looked kind of interesting, none the less so for having many central scenes set in my hometown of San Francisco.  And the kids were interested as well.

When I was a kid, in the 1970’s, I really liked The Planet of the Apes movies/cartoons/television show/comic books.  I had a Dr. Zaius piggy bank, a play-set of mini action figures, and I even named my dog “Zira”, after the Kim Hunter role, the nice female chimpanzee psychiatrist.  That said, it had been a long, long time since I’d watched any of the films except for Burton’s re-make, and I began to simply classify it with the cliches and humor of its most iconic qualities.  I am strangely stirred to revisit the series now.

Rise goes where the films hadn’t before, to the origin of the evolution of the apes and the downfall of the human race and ties them back to the same event, an intended cure for Alzheimer’s  disease,  a wonder drug developed by Franco’s character in an attempt to rescue his father and others from the disease’s ravages.  His tests on chimpanzees leads him to an affected offspring, who he takes into his home and winds up raising as a son.  And the drama develops as this super-smart chimp’s evolved intelligence makes him far more than any primate, though still deeply in between worlds of apes and men.  After an incident in which he attacks to protect a family member, he’s sent to a facility that specializes in primate “care” (more truly primate abuse) and he comes to learn about the nature of his fellow beasts.  Ultimately, there is an uprising, and Caesar uses Franco’s drug to up the intellect of all his fellows.

And it turns out that the medicine, while initially working on Franco’s father, becomes a highly deadly pathogen to humans.

What really added to the interest in this film was that only a month or so ago, we’d watched the documentary Project Nim (2011) about a real chimpanzee who was taken into a home, brought up partially as human, taught to use sign language and who ultimately went on to suffer abuses and abandonment, as well as medical testing, a speck of reality against which this otherwise outlandish science fiction story is set.  If you haven’t seen either, I recommend seeing Project Nim beforehand if you have the time.  I think it really does add some depth to what in reality is a fairly straight-forward science-gone-wrong film.

The special effects really impressed the kids.  For one thing, I think they had a hard time recognizing that the apes were largely digitally created, that these weren’t real chimps acting on film, but especially in the film’s finale, in which the action takes place across San Francisco from Twin Peaks to the cable cars to the final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge.  Having such familiarity with the bridge, they were really wow’ed by how realistic this ape takeover seemed.  Me, too, I suppose, though I am much more aware of digital effects.

The whole film is just a bit better than I would have expected.  Rupert Wyatt manages the whole in a very competent manner.  As clunky as many films of the summer can be, this one maintained its pace and interest throughout and was surprisingly entertaining.  Adding in that consideration of the real-life touch-point of Project Nim, this turned out to be somewhat thoughtful, as well.  I don’t know if it would have been as much so without the factual story of a chimpanzee underlying the experience of this one.  But it was, indeed, one of the better flicks of the summer.

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