Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a prequel no one I knew of, including myself, was excited about seeing. The memories we have, or whatever’s left of them, of Tim Burton’s surprisingly bland and forgettable remake of “Planet of the Apes” made us not want to have those “damn dirty apes” putting their paws on us ever again. But this prequel proves to be a total surprise and an unexpected delight as it is intelligently written and features a number of interesting characters which many summer movies typically lack.

Actually, there is one real reason why “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is as good as it is: Andy Serkis. You may not know the face, but you most certainly know the name. Serkis brought Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy to life, and he inhabited the humongous ape who was in love with Naomi Watts in “King Kong.” Serkis has also done a large number of live action roles, but these are the ones he is best known for. As Caesar, Serkis does an amazing job of creating a multi-dimensional creature who is endlessly fascinating to watch as his intelligence grows exponentially.

What happens is scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a genetically engineered retrovirus which may cure Alzheimer’s Disease (didn’t I just tell you that?) just like Saffron Burrows’ character in ” Deep Blue Sea” tried to accomplish. Will, on the other hand, is doing this because his dad Charles (the great John Lithgow) is in the grips of this dreaded disease, so his goal of getting to a cure is both personal and far more dangerous as a result.

Rodman and his team succeed with one chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, who develops a strong level of human intelligence after being given the retrovirus. However, Bright Eyes ends up getting killed after going on a rampage in the laboratory which is immediately blamed on Will’s experiment. It turns out, however, that Bright Eyes had given birth to a chimp, and both Will and fellow scientist Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) realize the attack came about not because of the retrovirus, but because she was just trying to protect her baby. Since all the other chimps were euthanized after the attack, Robert asks Will to take care of the chimp until a more permanent home can be found. If the baby is discovered, she will be euthanized like the rest of the chimps were.

Now this is where the movie gets really interesting as we watch the baby chimp, which Will names Caesar, grow up and evolve at a rapid pace. The retrovirus ended up being passed on to him from his mother, so he is already imbued with human intelligence. Now I don’t know if any experiment can make chimps or apes that smart as of yet, but considering we came from them (don’t believe otherwise), the concept behind the plot feels very plausible since we know chimps can learn things like sign language (which Will teaches Caesar), and that DNA in chimps and humans is exactly identical.

“Rise of the Planet of The Apes” came out around the same time the documentary “Project Nim” was released, and that one focused on a chimp who was raised alongside a human family where he learned American Sign Language. As a result, Will bringing Caesar into his home for him and his ailing father to watch over never feels far-fetched in the slightest.

Serkis is brilliant in making Caesar appear like a frightened child as he discovers the dangers of the outside world. This is not your typical monster movie where the humans fight animals because they are considered “evil.” Caesar doesn’t start out attacking humans as much as he defends the ones he feels are being harmed. We feel for him as he gets exposed to a cold and hostile environment which treats him as inferior and brutalizes him out of sheer neglect and contempt. Watching Serkis transform Caesar from helpless victim to leader is mesmerizing, and he makes it to where we don’t see him as an animal but as more human than the humans surrounding him.

We’ve seen some movies where humans attack aliens or other species, be it “Cowboys & Aliens” or “Attack The Block,” so it’s kind of refreshing to see “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” bypass this to where the battle is more complex than it appears to be on the surface. These apes weren’t born evil, but they have evolved (take that Creationists!) to where they are no longer dependent on humans for their survival. You almost find yourself rooting for the apes as you can’t blame them for wanting to get back at their captors. Then again, not all the humans in this movie are cruel to animals.

James Franco is as excellent as scientist Will Rodman who is in the Frankenstein mold of trying to extend life even if it goes beyond scientific boundaries. Franco never makes Will out to be an obsessive genius with delusions of grandeur, but instead a regular guy doing what he feels is best. As he tries the retrovirus on other chimps and his father, even he comes to see there are and should be limits to what science can do. Human life can only last for so long, darn it.

The movie, however, stumbles a little when it comes to other characters. Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire”) plays Will’s girlfriend Caroline Aranha, but she’s not given much to do other than be his conscience. Brian Cox plays John Landon, manager of a primate facility who incarcerates Caesar when a court order takes him away from Will. Cox is great as always, but we don’t see enough of him. Then there’s Tom Felton who brings his Draco Malfoy act from the “Harry Potter” franchise to the States with an American accent as Landon’s bully of a son, Dodge. Felton’s not bad, but the character he plays is nothing more than a manipulative device to turn our sympathies towards Caesar which comes to feel unnecessary very quickly.

Directing “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is Rupert Wyatt who previously directed the British prison thriller “The Escapist.” He shows a very assured and confident style here and is clearly interested in more than just simple escapist fun with this film. He also gives more attention to the characters to where they are the ones which drive the film. The special effects are great, but they’re not the point. The complexities of the story make for a more emotionally involving cinematic experience than any “Transformers” movie could ever hope to be.

The story is a familiar one of man vs. science and of the moral implications which are heedlessly ignored in the pursuit of a greater good. We should despise Will for violating his own ethics which start off an evolution that soon leads to a revolution. But in the end, the movie implies that the destruction of the human race will not be from the apes but instead from our own willful ignorance. We should know better, and yet history keeps repeating itself.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” proved to be one of summer 2011’s best movies, and it makes me look forward to the sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The downside is Serkis still has yet to get an Oscar nomination for his work in movies like these. Regardless of how it may seem, the special effects did not do all the acting for him. It could have just seemed like a simple setup for a franchise, but it feels very much like a full movie which doesn’t exist solely for that purpose. It will appeal to a wide audience, and not just for those who are against animal testing.

* * * ½ out of * * * *

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Risen

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The story of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection has been told countless times, but “Risen” looks to tell it from a different perspective. This movie follows powerful the Roman Centurion Clavius (Joseph Fiennes) as he is ordered by Pontius Pilate (Peter Firth) to investigate the disappearance of Yeshua’s (a.k.a. Jesus of Nazareth) body which has vanished from its resting place. What results is a motion picture which proves to be anti-climactic more than anything else, and this is regardless of the fact it is better produced than other faith-based films out there today.

Things start out with Clavius leading his troops out into battle in a fight scene which looks like something out of “300.” Then we see him as he helps to close off Yeshua’s final resting place which is sealed off with an enormous stone wall. Somehow this wall is breached and Clavius is left with his aide Lucius (Tom Felton) to figure out who absconded with Yeshua’s body, and the answer will forever change what he has been led to believe.

“Risen” was directed by Kevin Reynolds who may be best known for directing “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” and the infamous “Waterworld” with his friend and, at times, worst enemy Kevin Costner. He approaches this movie as a detective story as we watch Clavius interrogate many people about who might have made off with Yeshua’s body when the guards were not looking. This is where things are at their most interesting as it seems like Reynolds is testing us in regards to what we have been taught to believe about Jesus Christ among other things. Witnesses say one thing, but we are skeptical as to what we should accept as truth.

But then Clavius discovers Yeshua has somehow come back to the land of the living, and this is where the movie fell apart. Perhaps I should mention “Risen” starts with Clavius roaming the barren landscape, having been deeply affected by an experience we have yet to see him discover for himself. As a result, any tension or suspense this movie hoped to offer its audience is thrown out the window because we already have a pretty good idea of what’s going to happen.

Dramas of any kind suffer tremendously when conflict is absent, and “Risen” quickly renders any potential conflict as null even when the movie could have benefited from more of it. Clavius’ association with the Roman Army quickly becomes non-existent when he sees with his own eyes how Yeshua has somehow come back from the dead. His loyal aide Lucius (Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton) sees him as a betrayer of the Romans, but any confrontation that could come between the two of them is rendered moot in no time at all. By the time the movie reaches its conclusion, I couldn’t help but wonder what Reynolds was trying to get across. Was it belief helps you overcome being a Roman Centurion who helped pin Christ to the crucifix and then leave all those years of training behind upon discovering Christ has been resurrected? Look, I’m a big believer of anything being possible, but Clavius’ sudden conversion feels very far-fetched.

Fiennes is a fine actor (no pun intended) and he does give Clavius a stoicism which would make the common criminal buckle under an especially intense interrogation. At the same time, he makes Clavius a little too stoic to where his face seems far more frozen than it has any right to be. Clavius is supposed to be a very serious dude, but some moments of levity could have helped to at least remind audiences that Fiennes’ range as an actor is much broader than is presented here.

I do, however, have to give credit to Cliff Curtis for giving us a powerfully mesmerizing interpretation of Yeshua/Jesus of Nazareth. Whenever he appears on screen, the actor exudes a sereneness and calm which is not as easy to pull off as he makes it look. This is the same actor who played FBI Deputy Director Miguel Bowman in “Live Free or Die Hard,” and here he digs into this role internally to where you are desperate to follow him no matter where he goes. His performance makes this movie more watchable than it would have been otherwise.

Aside from that, “Risen” is beautiful to look at thanks to director of photography Lorenzo Senatore, but there’s not much about the movie to recommend. The story of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ has been told in more compelling ways than what is presented here. But being this is a Kevin Reynolds movie, it won’t matter what audiences think of it because Kevin Costner will watch it and say he could have made it better.

* * out of * * * *

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