Some movies, much like some children, are destined to fail.
If there is Nicolas Cage, magic and/or a cult, the next 90 minutes of your life are nearly guaranteed to be worse. Megan Fox, meanwhile, is like a long-lost 11th Biblical plague, but for movies instead of crops or first-borns. Thirdly, virtually anything where a monkey plays a primary (heh heh) role is a big clue to go warm up your Hatemobile.
So how about a movie about a silent, angry monkey who does little but beat people down? What? No, not The Sylvester Stallone Story. I'm talking about a leading candidate for 2011's "Least Likely to Succeed" award: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
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Scientist James Franco is on the verge of a breakthrough that could cure the Alzheimer's that's crippling his father. But when a brain-enhanced lab chimp goes wild during Franco's presentation, boss David Oyelowo orders the program restarted and the chimps put down.
Unable to kill the enhanced chimp's baby, Franco takes it home instead. Very quickly, he realizes Caesar the ape is much smarter than human children its age. Too smart to be a pet, yet treated by one as society.
Two strange things happened to me when I went to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The second thing was that when I walked out to the parking lot post-credits, I could hear apes calling to each other from the palm trees, as if a canny PR firm had told the apes to put off their fez-wearing coup until the release of Rise endeared us to their cause. (It turned out it was crows doing their best monkey impersonation. That didn't stop me from running.) But prior to that, I found out Rise is...actually pretty good.
How did it pull that off? Lord only knows. And me. I know. Rise built its success on a maverick strategy that could have brought the whole studio crashing down: pairing strong direction with an equally canny script.
Until very near the end, Rise remains disarmingly low-stakes. Franco's just out to cure his dad (played by an excellent John Lithgow). Caesar doesn't pop out of the womb straight into a rejected Star Trek uniform and a bunch of traps set with maple bacon and 1080p flatscreens with permanent access to NFL Sunday Ticket. Instead, Caesar's transition from happy ape-baby to Chape Guevara (oh man, don't hit me for that one) is well-plotted and well-paced by director Rupert Wyatt. By the time things really get rolling, you'll be rooting for those put-upon monkeys to kick our hairless asses right off the planet.
As for how mankind is replaced? Yeah, that's covered. How we wound up settling outer space before being replaced by a bunch of creatures who are Internet-famous for peeing into their own mouths? Also wrapped up in a neat little package. Writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver aren't particularly witty or obviously awesome, but they have done something awesome nonetheless: crafted a completely unnecessary prequel that's not only entertaining, but which also adds legitimacy to a franchise about talking, Earth-ruling apes.
Much of the credit here is because of Caesar (for whom Andy Serkis provided the motion capture, Gollum-style). Caesar's CG isn't exactly perfect, but he gives a ridiculously soulful performance. Considering he is a pile of pixels and incapable of speech, this is more impressive than those mummy bones NASA found on the moon last year.
Not every element in Rise is so well-developed. Franco's girlfriend exists only to a) look pretty and b) give prophetic warnings about "things that aren't meant to be controlled" and the potentially dire consequences of Cute Baby Chimp becoming Surly Teen Chimp.
The bad guys are pretty one-dimensional, too. Effective at manipulating emotions, yes, but flat nonetheless.
Oh yeah, and there's one other big drawback, too: Rise of the Planet of the Apes isn't just a prequel, but it's planned as the first entry in an entire Apes reboot. With this one as the foundation, though, we might just be all right.