The Apes Will Rise: a review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

This is the inaugural post of my new themed blog days: Science/Fantasy Monday.  For an explanation of this see my ‘About’ page or “Rearranging the Furniture.”

On Sunday I went to the movies to see Rise of the Planet of the Apes with my brother.  We were both rather excited about it because we both loved the original Planet of the Apes movies, and after the fiasco that was the 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes, we were more the ready for a good version.  And Rise of the Planet of the Apes delivered.  It more than delivered.

My expectations for the movie, based on the previews and what I’d heard about it, were pretty high.  And yet the movie somehow managed to far exceed those expectations.

For those of you unfamiliar with the plot: scientist Will Rodman is attempting to create drug to cure Alzheimer’s (which has claimed his father) and is in the process of testing the drug on apes.  It appears that the drug is successful, repairing damage to one apes brain and increasing her intelligence.  Unfortunately, due to a violent outburst mistakenly attributed to a side-effect of the drug, the test is canceled by Will’s boss and all the apes are put down.  However, the ape whose test had been successful had had a violent outburst because she had just given birth, so Will sneaks the newborn ape out of the lab and to his home in order to save its life.  Only later does he realize that the drug had been passed on the baby, making him extremely intelligent.  His father names the ape Caesar and the two raise him for years as he grows in intelligence.  When Caesar’s existence is discovered, he is taken away by court order to a ape house where the animals are severely mistreated, and the hyper intelligent Caesar begins plotting escape.  From here, things just get crazy.

While Will is obviously an important character, he is more a catalyst for the action than he is anything else.  The real main character of the story is very obviously Caesar, and it is his story of development, discovery, abandonment, and his rise to leadership and liberation that are the emotional core of the movie.

Let’s start with one of the most obvious elements and get it out of the way: the CGI (done by Weta Digital, who else?).  Unlike the original movies and the 2001 remake, which used costumes for the apes, this movie used CGI exclusively (using an abundance of reference to live actors, stunt doubles, and footage of real apes in action.  It was all beautifully done.  The detail was amazing, the movements were realistic, and the interaction between the CGI and the live actors was very well done.  The CGI was amazing, and it would have been much more difficult to enter into the reality of the story without realistic-looking apes.

We’ve got that out of the way now, right?  Yes?  Okay, good.  Let’s talk about Andy Serkis.

You may now him as Smeagol/Gollum from Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings.  He was also King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake of that movie.  Peter Jackson really loves working with Andy Serkis, but seriously, who doesn’t?  Andy Serkis, in combination with some really spot-on writing, MAKES this movie.  Andy Serkis played Caesar.  In order to make this movie as believable as possible, the director had Andy Serkis act out all the scenes with the full cast when you see Will (played by James Franco) hold Caesar’s hand, it is Andy Serkis that he is physically touching, not empty air.  Serkis wore a suit covered in tracking dots and other things to track his movements, right down to his facial expressions, so that all of this could then be incorporated into the CGI image of Caesar the ape.

But Andy Serkis is not just a place holder from CGI wizardry.  He is a serious actor playing a serious part to perfection.  He researched meticulously in order to get the movements, posture, and attitude just right. And while he doesn’t speak a word throughout his performance, his facial expressions and movement breathed life into what otherwise would have been nothing but a cypher.  This movie does not work unless the audience feels sympathy, affection, and even empathy with Caesar.  We have to feel for him, feel outraged on his behalf, and triumphant with him, or the movie falls apart at the seams.  Andy Serkis (as well as the writing), make this possible.

There have been petitions, on behalf of Andy Serkis, for the Academy Awards to change its rules so that an actor who portrays a character that is then animated through CGI can still be nominated for the Best Actor Award.  After this performance by Andy Serkis, the Academy should be seriously considering it.

While I’m on the topic of actors… James Franco, who played Will, did a surprisingly good job.  Let me say this about James Franco: sometimes he can be a very good actor and sometimes he can be extremely wooden and sometimes he just seems to be high on something.  He has a lot of potential, I think, he just isn’t consistent at all.  So I was a little worried about how he would do in this movie.  Thankfully, he seemed to take this role seriously, and the movie was better for it.

John Lithgow, who played Will’s father, also did a very good job with what could have been a fairly minor role for another actor.  Lithgow’s portrayal of a father with Alzheimer’s is first and foremost an instigator for Will’s actions, but Lithgow gives a touching, sympathetic performance which highlights the pain of victims of all forms of dementia, as well as their families.

Tom Felton (best known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies), also makes a fine showing as one of the assholes who works at the ape house that mistreats Caesar and all the other apes.  Tom Felton is extremely adept at playing douche-bag villains.  I nearly cheered when he met his demise.

I should also add that a movie like this needs a smart, detail-oriented director, which they obviously got in Rupert Wyatt.  This is, apparently, only Wyatt’s second time directing a feature-length movie.  It’s amazing that a virtual unknown newbie managed to land this gig at all, and even more impressive that this newbie proved himself more than up to the task.  He’ll definitely be worth keeping an eye out for in the future.

Last, but certainly not least, I come to the writing.  This version was written and produced by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, inspired by the original novel by Pierre Boulle.  And they did an absolutely fantastic job with both the source material and their new take on it.  While based on the premise of the 4th movie in the original Planet of the Apes series: Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, this movie is vastly different.  Both movies focus quite heavily on animal cruelty but do so in entirely different ways.  The plot presented in Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far more believable a credit to the research and detail that went into the writing.  What is most striking about this movie, however, is that it not an action flick.  It is a serious drama with a bit of action tacked on to the end.  It is almost painful to watch in parts.  This movie is about science: its role, its potential, its consequences, and the dangers of treating it like a “business” whose main (perhaps only) goal is making money.  This is a movie about the ethical treatment of animals. About family and loyalty.  It asks hard questions about what makes something sentient, what makes something worthy of respect.

I honestly cannot stress enough how brilliant and touching this movie was.  It was not only extremely good science fiction, it was astoundingly important social commentary and human drama as well.  Everyone needs to see this movie, whether you liked (or even saw) the originals or not.  Go.  Now.  Then come tell me what you think.  It’s okay, I’ll wait here for you to get back.  You can thank me later.

And if you have seen it already, chime in!  I’d love to hear you what you think!

(Side Note: clicking on each image will take you to the article I took the image from.)

Five Television Shows Murdered Before Their Time

It happens more often than we care to think about.  That new show, that new show that has wined and dined us with interesting, strange, exotic characters and wonderful quirky plot lines, that new show that has stolen our hearts after a few dizzying exhilarating dates and promised us a long glorious affair… that new show has been canceled.  After only one or two whirlwind seasons.  Leaving us alone with fading memories, unfulfilled fantasies, and broken hearts.

It’s happened to us all, and no matter what anyone else says, we never really get over it.

Here are five of the brief affairs that still haunt me:

#1: Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

The basic premise of Freaks and Geeks was rather similar to any number of other teen dramedies.  It followed two high school students, sister and brother Lindsay and Sam Weir, as they attempt to survive high school in the early 1980s.  However, these are not your usually golden-girl/golden-boy, prom-queen/quarterback-hero students.  Lindsay belongs to the Freaks group, including: James Franco, Soth Rogen, Jason Segal, and Busy Philipps; and Sam’s group was the geeks, which included: Samm Levine and Martin Starr.

The focus of the show was on Lindsay, as she goes from straight-A, “proper” girl to Army-jacket-wearing rebel with slacker friends.  Linda Cardellini was charmingly unaffected as Lindsay.  And, in fact, that entire cast was absolutely excellent as is evident by the number of them who eventually went on to bigger television and movie roles.  Even though the show was set in the early 1980s, the plots were highly recognizable.  Everyone could see their high school in this show.  I definitely identified with the show, as “my” group in high school was effectively a combination of the freaks and geeks (with a few slightly more well-adjusted people thrown in for good measure).  Also, the soundtrack was amazing including such bands as The Who, Styx, Van Halen, Billy Joel, the Grateful Dead, and Rush.  And, in fact, the dvd release was actually held back for two years just so they could retain all the music rights for the release.

Unfortunately, the show was canceled by NBC after only 12 episodes.  3 more episodes were aired later due to a fan-led campaign.  But 3 episodes of the 18 filmed were only ever seen on the dvd release.  The show has an enormous cult following, and was named the 13th best show of the past 25 years by Entertainment Weekly in 2008.  Sadly, no amount of fan pressure could keep the show alive, and it was pronounced dead in July 2000.

(Purely by luck, one of today’s Freshly Pressed blogs is about Freaks and Geeks.)

#2: The Invisible Man (2000-2002)

Let me begin by saying, I LOVED THIS SHOW!  Inspired by the novella The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells, but the concept of invisibility is the only thing that carries over.  The tv show opens with Darien Fawkes, a thief facing life imprisonment, who is offered freedom in exchange for being a test subject for his scientist brother, who works for a U.S. spy organization.  The brother has created the “Quicksilver” gland, which secretes a substance that coats the cells and bends light, making the person invisible.  After implanting the gland in Darien, the brother is murdered, leaving Darien in semi-forced employment as a spy for the organization.  He is saddled with a partner, Bobby Hobbes played by Paul Ben-Victor (yes, I talked about him on Wednesday too.  What’s your point?), whose job it is to keep the ex-thief control, especially when the gland begins to overload his brain and make him more than a little crazy for short periods of time.  The show kept the scifi side of things balanced with comedic buddy-cop elements Darien (played by Vincent Ventresca) and Bobby playing off each other to hilarious effect.  Add in a sub-plot about an evil secret agency called Chrysalis that tries to recruit and then kill Darien, and you’ve got a DIAMOND of a show.

Vincent Ventresca was (and still is) hilarious in a dead-pan way, but capable of carrying the more serious, weighted moments of the show, and was an absolute joy to watch.  And, as I’ve said before, Paul Ben-Victor is just plain awesome.  The supporting cast was strong.  And the plot lines, while sometimes wavering between interesting, strange, intense, and slightly-silly, were always entertaining and fun.

The show aired on The SciFi Channel, and lasted 2 seasons.  Then, in a fit of in-fighting between the SciFi Channel and its parent company, then USA Networks, the show was cancelled with warning or reason, despite a strong cult following and decent viewer ratings.  It was cold-blooded murder, and I have yet to recover from the loss.  To make matter worse, it was YEARS before the first season was released on Dvd, and the second season is STILL yet to be released.  That’s like shooting the victim in the head, kicked the corpse around for awhile, and then hiding the body in the walls of building so that no one will ever find it again.  I just don’t understand WHY!  One of these days, USA and SciFi Channel (now Syfy) are going to pay for this crime.  I swear.

#3: Dead Like Me (2003-2004)

Dead Like Me was strange and funny and sad and brilliant.  I think most people know what it’s about, but just to be sure: in 2003 Georgia “George” Lass, a somewhat aloof young woman who is distant with her family, dies (killed by a toilet seat, still one of the strangest scenes in any tv show ever).  However, instead of moving on to “the great beyond” she becomes a grim reaper one responsible, not for killing people, but for collecting souls and ushering them on to the afterlife.  What is most strange about this show is that the grim reapers are spirits, but un-dead.  They are still physical beings that people can see and interact with though people do not see what they originally looked like, but rather someone else entirely.  They still need to eat and sleep, and therefore, still need to hold down day jobs, while also fulfilling their duties as grim reapers.  This concept was so strange that it alone would have made the show charming.

However, the characters, and the cast that played them, really carried this show beyond an intriguing concept.  Ellen Muth (who plays the main character, George), Mandy Patinkin, Jasmine Guy, and Callum Blue play the main reapers, who meet every morning at Der Waffle Haus to receive their assignments, and were good enough to receive several award nominations.   Britt McKillip, who played George’s extremely eccentric/dysfunctional little sister Reggie whose strange way of dealing .with her sister’s death eventually leads her to being placed in therapy, was an absolutely brilliant addition to the cast and the story.

This show dealt with death and grief, suicide, choice, and fate, family and love and friendship.  And everything in between.  And in the middle of all that, managed to be completely hilarious.  And yet, after only two season and 29 episodes, it was cancelled.  Killed in the prime of its life.  The producers tried to pull a Frankenstein and bring it back to life with a direct-to-dvd Dead Like Me: Life After Death, with an option for a new season, but the movie was pretty bad (due in part to weak writing and the replacement of one of the major characters), so the experiment failed miserably.  And thus, another awesome show was laid to rest.

#4: The Dresden Files (2007)

Based on the hit urban fantasy series by Jim Butcher and aired by the SciFi Channel, The Dresden Files seemed like a sure thing to me.  The books were popular (and awesome), the pilot episode, while obviously not endowed with the best budget ever, was smart and entertaining.  And, though Paul Blackthorne didn’t really match the books’ descriptions of the main character Harry Dresden, he played smart-ass, slightly world-weary, and awkwardly-cool with such panache that I just didn’t care.

The Dresden Files (book series and tv show) followed professional wizard Harry Dresden, who helps the police on cases and works for hire on a variety of “cases” involving saving a boy from the monsters under his bed and helping a father catch his daughter’s killer and put her ghost to rest.  His backstory includes a witch mother who died when he was a baby, a father who was a stage magician (and not a particularly good one), and an wizard uncle who wanted to use Harry as a child and killed Harry’s father to do so.  Harry eventually “self-defensed” his uncle to death, and is now on the outs with the High Council, the governing body of the magic community.

Besides Harry, the other two semi-main characters are Bob: a very old spirit of a wizard whose soul was sealed into his skull as punishment for using black magic in 900 A.D. and who know works as Harry’s assistant; and Lt. Connie Murphy: the detective who often goes to Harry for help on strange police cases.

I’ll be honest, it was not the best show ever made.  But the episodes were fun, strange, and occasionally dark, and Paul Blackthorne as Harry and Terrence Mann as Bob were both absolutely fantastic.  I think the show could easily have stabilized its formula and become extremely good.  Unfortunately, the show only survived a single 12-episode season before being axed down and thrown in the dump heap behind SciFi Channel’s officers, right beside The Invisible Man.  And it’s a crying shame, I tell you.  It really is.

#5: Firefly (2002)

Firefly is possibly the KING of all shows cruelly murdered before its time.  It was sucker-punched, beaten, and finally lynched by FOX Network.  Firefly was awesome for more reasons than can possibly be discussed here, but let’s list a few.  It was the brain-child of Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that’s enough right there.  It was a space western.  A SPACE WESTERN.  A sci fi, set in a galaxy filled with high-tech planets controlled by the Alliance, with out-lying worlds that look like something out of Gunsmoke how is that NOT awesome?  Also, Nathan Fillion is the lead.  ‘Nuff said.

The show follows Captain Malcolm “Mal” Reynolds and his crew on the Firefly-class spaceship called Serenity.  Mal and his second-in-command, Zoe, are survivors of a rebel group that fought in a war against the Alliance some years before, and lost, and now they work as petty criminals stealing cargo from ships, gun-running, smuggling, etc, in order to get by and keep out of the Alliance’s hands.  The motley crew (could I resist?  No, not really), includes a young intelligent flirtatious woman as the ship’s engineer, a somewhat-crazed gunman, a surprisingly mild-mannered pilot who is married to Zoe, a preacher with a past, and an Alliance doctor on the run with his sister, who was experimented on.  Every single cast member was perfect; the dialogue was fast-paced and manic, the sets and costumes and special effects were surprisingly detailed, and the music was good.  And Mal, the heart of the show, was so torn between cynical and self-serving/loyal and honor-bound that was downright comical watching him trying to reconcile the two.

It was an awesome show.  It should have gone on for YEARS.  And yet, the viewer ratings averaged only 4.7 million per episode, so after 11 episodes, it was cancelled.  Such viewer ratings might indicate to some that the show was at fault.  But remember, I told you it was sucker-punched and beaten.  FOX, after giving Whedon the green light, for some inexplicable reason, seemed hell-bent on killing the show: changing the air time and air day several times, showing the episodes OUT OF ORDER, and promoting it as a comedy rather than the character-study it was intended as, as if they were attempting to so completely flabbergast viewers that they wouldn’t dare show there faces again in Firefly’s presence.

Of course, this failed, as Firefly has an astoundingly enormous fan base (who call themselves Browncoats), which tried several times to save the show.  Unlike in the case of Dead Like Me, the Frankenstein experiment worked long enough to give us the absolutely amazing full-feature film Serenity, but hopes of a continuation of the series were quickly dashed.  The series now haunts the earth as a ghost in the form of graphic novels, while those of us who loved the show still mourn it’s cold-blooded, pre-meditate, first-degree murder by the FOX executives.

And there, Ladies and Gentlemen, is the list of 5 shows that I continue to mourn to this day and probably will for years to come.  But what poor innocent murder victims do you still mourn?  Which of your tv shows were cut down in their youth, before they had a chance to grow to maturity and show the serial-killer executives that they could be productive members of society?

(Also, this concludes my month-long tribute to television.  However, I really enjoyed writing about tv shows, and apparently some of you enjoyed reading them, so I will probably keep doing these kinds of posts from time-to-time.  Though not in one long month of themed blog posts.  ‘Cause that’s pretty exhausting.)