You finally made a monkey out of me!

But: “They’re not monkeys! They’re apes!” So spoketh the chimp wrangler in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which I thought was pretty damn entertaining. My review will be in print next Thursday, but here it is, early:

If your jaw dropped at how realistic, how life-like and creepy Gollum was when you first saw him in The Fellowship of the Ring ten years ago, it will fall open again and your mouth will dry out when you see Caesar, the super smart chimpanzee at the center of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The rise of CGI (computer generated imagery) has been derided as much as it has been hailed; the detractors need only point to Green Lantern or The Last Airbender or any original film on SyFy, while the supporters have Jurassic Park and all three films in The Lord of the Rings. And now the CGI cheerleaders have Rise, which I think is a new benchmark in the use of computers to create non-human characters who are not just believable, but whose digital origins become forgettable seconds after first view. Caesar’s movements are performed by Andy Serkis; the motions are captured on camera and then technicians use them around which to draw and animate a chimpanzee. Caesar’s acting, then, is a collaboration between Sirkis, who voiced and moved Gollum, and the effects team put together by director Rupert Wyatt.  Too bad you can’t give a Best Actor Oscar to four dozen people.

Planet of the Apes, to which Rise is the ninth film sequel or remake (there was also a TV series), was groundbreaking in 1968 because of its special effects, in particular the costumes and make-up for the super smart simians who lorded over mute humans in the distant future. None of the films that followed were remotely as well-made, neither technically nor in their stories, and some were just terrible, even though they have their camp appeal. Tim Burton’s remake of the first film ten years ago wasn’t even campy, just a mess of terrible acting, a dumb-downed screenplay, and weak effects – though the ape costumes weren’t that bad. Rise’s special effects alone make it probably the best since the first film, and it’s definitely the most entertaining, despite its faults.

One of the reasons gay audiences might be drawn to the movie is James Franco, who plays the present-day scientist responsible for making Caesar, and by extension, every other ape, way too smart. Franco loves to play gay or gay-ish (Milk, Pineapple Express) and is strikingly handsome, and he can be an intensely great actor, as he was in 127 Hours and James Dean. But he has been known to phone it in, becoming wooden and distracted. See, for instance, his bizarrely unfocused and terrible hosting of the last Acadamy Awards show. And in Rise, while he’s believable, he’s much less intense – he’s almost lazy – than I would expect from his character.

Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant scientist trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father (John Lithgow) suffers from. Testing the cure on chimps, one of them becomes smarter, showing that the drug is working. But she goes berserk, and is killed, and the study is shut down. It turns out it wasn’t the drug making her crazy; she was just protecting her baby. This baby is Caesar, who Will takes in, raises, and discovers to be even smarter than a human. But Caesar still has some wild animal in him, and after he attacks a man threatening Lithgow, he’s sent to a primate sanctuary, which is really a prison for problematic apes. The rest of the film is a prison break revenge story crossed with a “Don’t play God!” cautionary tale. Science doesn’t end up looking too hot by the end.

And science is represented by a cartoonishly evil drug company exec (David Oyelowo), a dull Franco, and Frieda Pinto, who has the thankless role of Will’s veterinarian girlfriend and voice of reason. I was thrilled when the humans were off-screen, because Caesar and his fellow apes, communicating almost entirely in grunts and body language, starred in scenes as fascinating, entertaining, suspenseful, and action-packed as the human scenes were dreary. By the end, as Caesar and his pals are marauding through San Francisco, you cheer for their dominance. These computer-generated apes just seem so much more alive.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Written by Rick Jaffe and Amanda Silver
Starring James Franco, Andy Serkis, and John Lithgow
Rated PG-13
At your local multiplex

Oh, and the title of this post is from the musical Stop the Planet of the Apes, I Want To Get Off! which was depicted in the episode “A Fish Called Selma” of The Simpsons. Ha.

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