Posted by: C.E. Chambers | August 12, 2011


By C.E. Chambers

Posted August 12, 2011

In 2000, I began my critique of “Gladiator” by writing, “If I were to enter a Colosseum with only a sword as protection against lethally-armed charioteers and tigers on long chains, I’d ask Russel Crowe to go first.”  Since watching “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I’ve had a substantial and curiously inappropriate change of mind.

Caesar (Andy Serkis) the chimpanzee is now Hollywood’s riveting leading man.  He’s the Vin Diesel of chimpanzees, the Russell Crowe of the primate kingdom.  He’s the kind of person — er, animal — that you know you could depend on in an emergency.  The kind of person — whoops, animal — that you’d choose to share a foxhole with.  You’d trust him to watch your back.  You’d welcome him as your next door neighbor…well, maybe not.

I’m not going to pretend that I fully understand how CGI (computer-generated imagery) works, but “state-of-the-art 3D animation, animatronics, and actors rigged with motion-capture sensors have revolutionized the entertainment industry.  This brilliant technology imparts remarkably real-life characteristics and compelling substance to fictional characters, including brute-like animals.  Weta Digital, the digital masters behind “Avatar,” helped create this movie.

A technique known as “performance-capture” requires all of the actors to work alongside each other with a director, as is customary, and “months down the line, the visual effects artists apply the make-up.”   As one writer described it:  “[An] actor’s face is digitally replaced by special-effects wizards.”

All I know is this:  About half-way through “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” I realized my heart was pounding, and by the end I had an uncharacteristic lump in my throat.  As the credits rolled, movie goers shouted out affirmations and clapped their hands.  On the way out of the theater, however, a total stranger shared that the film had greatly disturbed her.

A critic from PopWatch, who enjoyed the film, nonetheless confessed that he experienced a “surprising…complex moral conundrum [that] I was left processing for hours after seeing the film….”

Yes, CGI-driven technology can create novel, viewer-worthy entertainment, and it has the powerful ability to evoke potent, enduring emotions in viewers.  This comes with a caveat: Miracle technology such as this could be used by unscrupulous entertainment industry insiders as an elite, expensive tool to manipulate viewers’ minds and emotions to garner support for their causes.

Does a riveting but horrifying scene in this film have political undertones?  I don’t want to spoil a key scene involving a helicopter with heavily armed passengers, but I will share that Sarah Palin can probably kiss her career goodbye.

Will (James Franco) is a scientist in San Francisco who’s been experimenting on chimpanzees for five years in hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.  He’s consumed by this subject because his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is slowly being overcome by dementia.  A female chimp who somehow managed to hide the birth of her hours-old baby from lab attendants goes on a rampage when she thinks he’s subject to attack.  The head of the laboratory, Boris (David Oyelowo), attributes the drastic change in her character to the gene- therapy injections and gives orders for the other 12 chimps in the study group to be “put down.”

Will rescues the baby chimp and takes it home.  Through the years, Caesar becomes a much-treasured companion to Will and his father, and surprisingly begins to display heightened intelligence and remarkable cognitive skills.  He even learns sign language.  The serum that had been given to Caesar’s mother that had greatly increased her intelligence had passed through the womb to him.

Will unethically injects his father with this serum.  His dementia disappears almost overnight, but he experiences a serious reversal later and tries to drive his car but smashes it into his neighbor’s car while trying to leave the parking spot. The irate neighbor yells at Charles and jabs his finger into his chest, and Caesar, who’s watching from a window, attacks him.  He stops short of killing the now supine neighbor; Caesar, with blood on his lips, looks up and surveys the astonished crowd of people who have gathered around.

Caesar is placed by authorities in a Primate Shelter.  Will promises the chimpanzee that he will return soon; the manager of the establishment responds a little ominously,” Call ahead before you do.”

Caesar, terribly forlorn, who has never interacted with other primates, not only has to deal with a massive, aggressive alpha ape who doesn’t like strange males in his territory, he also becomes the brunt of cruel treatment by an employee of the shelter named Dodge (Tom Felton).  Dodge is a chimp’s worst nightmare: A snarling brute with latent violent tendencies who greets the simians with epithets and who loves to see them squirm when he brutalizes them with a water hose.

Over-the-top characters are sometimes a hallmark of a clumsy director – but, in this film, they’re obviously meant to portray homo sapiens as on a lower social order than Caesar-the-primate.  People walking their dog in a park who encounter Caesar as he’s being led out on a leash by Will aren’t just mildly shocked or curious: They’re extremely hostile.  Will’s neighbor doesn’t get dismayed or slightly angry when his car is slightly damaged; he becomes uncontrollably angry and all but jumps up and down.  Dodge, caretaker to chimpanzees, is e-v-i-l to the core and comes packaged in human flesh.

Unnecessary theatrics aside, this film still resonates with me.  I’ll never forget a particularly riveting scene involving Caesar.  After brilliantly establishing somewhat of a primacy among the other apes in the shelter, he waits for them at the entrance of the play room the next morning.  As the primates leave their dank, dark cages and head one-by-one through a long tunnel leading to the mock jungle area, Caesar – who is by no means larger than any of the other animals — resolutely stands at the end of the passageway.  With chin pointed slightly downward in a fighter’s stance and eyes unflinchingly locking with the eyes of each subdued chimp that files by, he silently challenges them to disprove his ascendancy.

Folks, it doesn’t get much better than this.  Does Andy Serkis (“Lord of the Rings”), as Caesar, deserve an Academy Award?  Or do the digital “wizards” who created a simian face and form to seamlessly lock with the actor’s body movements deserve much-earned accolades?  It may take Hollywood time to unravel this conundrum.

The screenplay to “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” has obviously been engineered to arouse great public sympathy for apes (and, it must be said, possibly even for revolutions), but recent media attention regarding a real-life American woman who received a landmark full-face transplant could cast somewhat of a shadow over the film’s remarkable success at infusing simians with human qualities.  Charla Nash, an American woman, was attacked by a friend’s long-time companion — a chimpanzee who had acted in films, knew how to unlock doors, turn on a computer, and greet policemen — who went ape one day and ripped off her eyes, nose, lips, and hands.  (Read article here.)  (More on Wikipedia)

More about the film:  Caesar figures out a way to increase the intelligence level of the other chimpanzees in the shelter and leads them on a rampage through San Francisco that culminates in an ending designed to ensure sequels.  “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is a new franchise that is a 21st-century chronological forerunner to the 1968 “Planet of the Apes” and its related sequels.  The characters in the final movie in that first franchise were placed on a post-nuclear-holocaust earth.  (“Planet of the Apes” was based on a 1963 novel by French author, La Planète des singes or Monkey Planet or Planet of the Apes.)

(Directed by Rupert Wyatt and distributed by 20th Century Fox.  Rated PG-13:  slight profanity; over-the-top characters; violence between animals; brutal treatment of primates; very aggressive animals storming public streets and killing people; horrifying scene with a downed helicopter.  Parents are advised caution as very young children may not be able to emotionally process very disturbing scenes.)

(Note:  Referring to the first paragraph, C.E. Chambers’ critique of “Gladiator” was published by The Journal Newspapers Movie Edition on May 2, 2000.)

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