Saturday, August 6, 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes: What is human?

Humanity is not defined by intelligence alone. Imagination, longing, friendship, and rebellion are all marks of humanity. Perhaps those qualities stem from intelligence or enhance the quality of intelligence. Either way, one is not truly human without them.

Caesar, the primary subject of "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is infinitely more human -- and humane -- than many people. Motion capture specialist Andy Serkis has brought to life a being that is full of awe at the world, full of longing for freedom and brimming with the intelligence and imagination to rise against his human oppressors to gain his freedom.

"Rise" does not lack heart, as the 2001 remake of "Planet of the Apes" did. In the relationships between Caesar, Dr. Rodman (James Franco) and Rodman's Alzheimer's-afflicted father (played without ever becoming a caricature by John Lithgow), "Rise" becomes a story about generations, especially fathers and sons. Rodman wants to save his father from a crippling disease and so he nurtures Caesar, a survivor of a lab experiment gone wrong. In the end, Rodman learns what every father and every son learns: you have to let go.

Franco and Serkis dominate the action, not only as Caesar grows up, but as Caesar becomes more than just another chimpanzee. We see Rodman as he is pulled between his obsessions: saving his father and protecting Caesar. We see Caesar mature into the leader of the apes, the one who shows the rest of his primate brothers how to be more than "stupid apes."

Brian Cox as a corrupt primate sanctuary operator is almost a throw-away character, but Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy to you Harry Potter buffs), is perfect as his cruel son. Felton injects pure venom into the classic "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape!" line. That line sparks Caesar into his first word. Parents everywhere will recognize it.

Director Rupert Wyatt handles the CGI apes and live humans with equal aplomb. While many of the minor ape characters look the same, like soldiers dressed for war, none stand out but the officers. Yet all are a joy to look at. As much as I despise CGI, this is probably the best use of the technology since "Jurassic Park."

Without giving away too much, it is important to know that the apes do not wipe out the human race. Caesar is not trigger-happy. He fights, but avoids killing. He encourages his simian army only to kill as an absolute last resort. The true cause of the downfall of the human race is a subtle subplot, but has its roots in the same experiments that gave Caesar his profound intelligence.

As much as I love this franchise, I hope the producers leave well enough alone. There are bound to be sequels, especially if the film does well at the box office. But really, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is just about as perfect on its own as one could ask for.

Threat level: RED. Drop what you are doing and go now. 

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is rated PG-13 and stars James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, and Tom Felton. Rupert Wyatt directed from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle.

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