Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” on IMDB

Sci-Fi, 105 Minutes, 2011

Not to spoil things by fawning overly in the first paragraph: but this is a prime example of how hollywood should proceed through its creative drought.  Comparing this to the well-produced but deeply flawed 2001 remake of the “Planet of the Apes” (IMDB) you’ll find some very educational contrasts.

The 2001 film is a remake of a classic, beloved film.  That’s already a big, red warning flag it but not necessarily a death-blow.  Remakes such as John Carpenter’s “The Thing” (IMDB) or especially Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” (IMDB) show how a respectful remake can integrate new technologies and new ideas without betraying and sometimes even embracing the source.

But the 2001 film made all the classic blunders.  It tried to make the story “more interesting to modern audiences” but, as usual, just succeeded in making it more complicated and less engaging.  It tried to eliminate the gender stereotyping of the original by putting a super-model in a (fur) bikini.  It tacked on a ridiculous, terrible, pants-crapping-insane ending (Ape Lincoln?!  Really?!).  It honestly wasn’t a horrible film for the greater part, but it was a sad shadow of the original and its ham-fisted attempts to pay homage (like the ugly, ugly ending) hurt it more than helped.

With “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” we see things done correctly.  It’s a prequel to the original; it extended the story rather than discarding it.  It leveraged cutting-edge technology to do things that the original creative team couldn’t do.  This allows it to benefit from nostalgia for the original while eliminating the arrogance of trying to present a “better” version.  Most importantly it also maintained a clear, unswerving respect for the source material.

The movie, as you probably know, tells the story of how apes got smart and how people got scarce.  Forgiving one insanely stupid plot device (really, they never noticed that their prized lab chimp was pregnant?) the story was tight and very smart and surprisingly intimate.  Everything you’ve heard about the quality of Andy Serkis’ acting is correct: it’s wedded seamlessly to the digital animation and the results are stunningly effective.  Serkis may be risking type-casting himself with all the simian roles but nobody can argue against the man’s talent.

Considering the world-altering events being staged the plot is interestingly, and realistically, small in scale.  Even the action-packed last act is really only concerned with the crossing of the Golden Gate Bridge.  While the sequence does lean on a few clichés it’s masterfully choreographed and emotionally gripping.  The three-dimensionality of the apes assault on the bridge was dramatic and fantastical while retaining a refreshing air of realism.

What could have been (some might say should have been) a disaster turned out better than I ever could have expected.  What’s amazing is how often it skirts the rocks and manages to slide through.  There’s a tacked-on love story which is sweetly understated and never allowed to take center stage.  There were references to the original galore which were all clever, smart and respectful.  There was an astronomical budget used to create lavish effects that remained both subtle and restrained.  I guess there’s still hope for big-budget studio movies yet.

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