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New ‘Planet of the Apes’ meshes past with future

Posted: August 10, 2011 - 4:20pm
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In this image released by Twentieth Century Fox, Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis is shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."   Twentieth Century Fox
Twentieth Century Fox
In this image released by Twentieth Century Fox, Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis is shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” does exactly what a prequel should do. It sets the stage for the movies already made but — more importantly — it has its own story to tell. What refreshment from the usual fare that, all too often, becomes nothing more than winks to familiar characters to lure in fans. There are some winks here too. They just aren’t the sole purpose.

These guys wanted to give something new to the franchise and give us some pretty involving characters to do it. As you’ve no doubt guessed, not all of these characters are human. But unlike many animals on film, they’re no less than true characters.

Part of the reason is that these apes were created almost entirely through motion capture. This technique is perfect for these performances that allow us to see the apes move like they should while also communicating their emotions. As great as they look, you’re always aware you’re looking at computer images and not animals, but the reality and depth is startling enough to make you forget it.

Traditionally, all the “Planet of the Apes” movies have used people in makeup. That worked fine for the installments that wanted to show that apes had evolved to a more humanistic point. They also gave a certain campy charm to such an outlandish spectacle.

But apes haven’t evolved yet, and they’re not even close to taking the planet. This is the beginning stage, and using motion capture is a genuine way to maintain their animal form and movements and faces. It’s definitely outdone the traditional masks and computer work to convey what the primates are feeling at a time when they haven’t yet evolved into speaking roles.

The lead ape is named Caesar, and he’s played by actor Andy Serkis. Serkis has had lots of practice from other roles in motion capture, even another simian role in “King Kong.”

As for Caesar, he’s a complicated and absolutely true character. I cared what happened to him not because he was some cute animal, but because what he goes through mimics what so many others on two legs do. He starts life as a salvaged lab animal and evolves to become a true member of his adopted family. After years of acceptance, he’s stripped of this life and thrust into a cage surrounded by similarly fated apes.

His emotions in this journey blast from acceptances to rejection with all the outrage that comes with it. But Caser has a secret. He’s hereditarily inherited advanced intelligence. The human who adopted him is a scientist, played by James Franco, who’s working on a way to advance the brain to cure Alzheimer’s. The other humans in his life are his father (John Lithgow), who suffers from the disease, and a young veterinarian (Freida Pinto). The two strike up a relationship. Admirably, the director doesn’t linger on this as a distraction or as pandering. It’s simply a part of their lives.

If I do have a problem with the humans in the movie, it’s that the span of the film spans about a decade, but no one seems to age or progress in other ways. Even so, we’re interested in them, and we’re interested in the plight Caesar feels. He ultimately chooses what many humans have done: fight back. But whether it’s from his feelings of hurt or necessity is up to the audience to decide.

Many of the scenes from this point feel like a prison escape movie. Perhaps this is fitting given that director Rupert Wyatt’s previous film was a small independent about breaking out of jail.

As I said, this is only the beginning of the apes’ rise over humans. The movie smartly takes into account that people have to regress at the same time. This will take eons. I had worried that the filmmakers might try to hurry things up and say the whole thing happened over a weekend. I was delighted to be proven wrong.

There are numerous throwbacks to the original that are done in a pretty darn fun way. Some are more obvious, like when a young and rather odious caretaker for the apes gets not one, but two lines that another human will say to a room full of the creatures in a few thousand years. Holding spears and riding horses bring up more fun memories.

The movie could work as a stand-alone flick for those who have yet to be exposed to the “Apes” universe. Still, it’s clearly intended for those already familiar with the mythology.

A great thing to keep in mind with such a movie is that its purely speculative as to what the original storytellers had in mind for how it all began. You may or may not agree with this take on it. Either way, speculations like that always make for good post-theater conversations in my crowd.

• Contact reporter Jonathan Grass at 523-2276 or jonathan.grass@juneauempire.com.

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