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Writing Fantasy

  
At The Picture Show
August 2011

Project Caesar

Surprisingly smart, taut 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' concludes summer tentpole season on a high note

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
20th Century Fox
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenplay: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, David Oyelowo, John Lithgow, Brian Cox and Tom Felton
Rated PG-13 / 1 hour, 45 minutes
(out of four)

Welcome to the club, Rupert Wyatt. We can officially add you to the too-short list of Hollywood filmmakers who can actually direct a competent and involving action scene.

I point this out not because Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exclusively an action movie - it isn't - but because when it comes to that (namely over the final half-hour or so), Wyatt delivers it with such precision and vigor that it deserves special mention. The action becomes an extension of the storytelling rather than an intrusion on it.

That speaks to the film as a whole, which, among other things, is an impressive exercise in restraint. There's such a careful orchestration of the film's events and disparate narrative threads, so the extended climactic setpiece is a payoff in the truest sense. It has come to this. It could only come to this. This had to happen.

We always accept the inevitability of the action-packed finale. We know it's an obligation of formula, and we're OK with that - provided the finale is worth it. But Rise builds organically toward its inevitable conclusion, in much the same way as its cinematic kindred spirit, King Kong. Is it ultimately all in the name of formula? Of course. It just doesn't necessarily feel that way.

Wyatt and his writers, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, do an exemplary job establishing character relationships and the various power struggles that result from those relationships. It's the strong sense of character that surprised me most - particularly the exploration of Caesar (a motion-captured Andy Serkis), an orangutan rescued as an infant after a scientific experiment on his mother goes terribly wrong.

The man responsible for that experiment is Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist for a San Francisco-based testing lab for a pharmaceutical company. He developed a prototype for a drug that helps repair and rebuild cells in the brain, designing it as a cure for Alzheimer's - an affliction affecting his father (John Lithgow).

The result, as it turns out, is a drug far more potent than he ever planned, the byproduct of which is Caesar's unprecedented level of intelligence and comprehension. Will first brings Caesar home with the intention of giving him up to a zoo or shelter after a couple of days, but instead keeps him, with Caesar serving as pet, experiment and surrogate child.

The film actually takes the time to explore Caesar's development (even if its extended timeline leaves open some rather noticeable, if insignificant, holes) and get to know his personality. Rise becomes, oddly and unwittingly, a sort of companion piece for the documentary Project Nim from earlier this year.

The ultimate effect of the character is yet another triumph for Serkis, a genuinely great actor who was robbed of an Oscar nomination for King Kong and arguably for The Lord of the Rings as well.

The attention paid to Caesar as a character speaks to the film's approach as a whole. It develops its story so that we understand the purpose and motivation behind its action from an emotional and even intellectual standpoint, rather than just a functional one. Rise isn't just a film about a genetically engineered evolutionary leap - it's about survival and, yes, revenge, too. Those are common themes in movies, and they're handled no differently here than they would be in a movie with a human protagonist. A lesser film wouldn't have cared nearly as much about the stakes, and its climactic sequences would have suffered for it.

From the beginning of this movie's development, the odds seem to have been against it. It was a strange series to reboot in the first place, more than four decades after the original film launched the franchise. Tim Burton's 2001 remake certainly didn't do the brand any favors. Then handing it off to an unknown director, a star with unproven box-office clout, and loads of CGI? That's a recipe for well-earned skepticism.

But as it turns out, it was an inspired choice to bring on Wyatt, whose only other work I'd seen was the well-made prison escape film The Escapist, which premiered at Sundance three years ago. And the special effects, while not perfect, do a stronger job than I expected - especially given how much of the film requires them.

I talked earlier about the restraint Wyatt shows throughout the film. Consider, for example, the way he drops in certain plot elements clearly intended to set up a possible sequel (while referencing the original film) without utilizing them too much or drawing so much attention that they seem gratuitous. I'm thinking of three particular plot details - all of which are handled with care, all of which are left dangling, and one of which gives the film its single most powerful moment.

Wyatt's refusal to overemphasize, the subtle touch he shows with detail and character, make me hope he'll be back for the sequel(s), so he can finish what he started.

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