Rise of the Planet of the Apes (US - BD RA)
Gabe welcomes our new ape overlords on his knees with a tasteful fruit basket
Rise of the Planet of the Apes smelled like a dark horse hit from the minute it was announced. It was a concept so tailor made to fail it just had to work. Following the disappointment of Tim Burton’s ill-received/positively despised 2001 Planet of the Apes remake/reimagining, most would’ve thought a pseudo remake of the original series’ fourth film would be the last thing on the minds of Fox executives. Fox has culled a reputation for being unfriendly to the creative types on genre films under Tom Rothman (to their credit they also took chances with X-Men: First Class in 2011), so the even bigger surprise here was the fact that the studio was entrusting an unusual genre concept (based on an arguably outdated series of films that had already proven problematic in the post-millennial film scene) to a relatively unknown director named Rupert Wyatt. Wyatt had made one modestly budgeted film in the UK called The Escapist (which I haven’t seen), but was otherwise a mystery, and certainly not the obvious choice for a nearly $100 million reboot. These chances more than paid off, because not only is Rise a unique and exciting motion picture, it’s so well made that its various shortcomings are pretty easily overlooked.
Genetic scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) works for the Gen-Sys biotechnology company, and has been trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease by testing a new gene therapy drug on 13 chimps. The most successful subject is a female nicknamed Bright Eyes (Terry Notary) due to the therapy’s effect on her irises. Will is in the middle of a presentation about his findings when Bright Eyes escapes, and runs havoc through the building, ending her rampage by being shot on the presentation table. Will's boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) puts an end to the project, and orders chimp handler Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) to put all the test chimpanzees down. Robert and Will then discover that Bright Eyes’ action were not an effect of the treatment, but because she was protecting a newborn under her bed. Unwilling to put down another chimp, Robert gives the baby to Will, who hesitantly takes it home, where his Alzheimer's stricken father Charles (John Lithgow) instantly bonds with it, and names it Caesar. It’s soon clear that Caesar has inherited his mother's intelligence, and over the next five years Caesar, Will, and Charles develop a close and loving relationship. But as he grows smarter, Caesar also starts to notice the lack of other intelligent apes, and begins to question his place in the world. Meanwhile Charles, who Will had attempted to cure with his treatment, begins to deteriorate at an alarming rate.
The original Planet of the Apes films that work (films one, three and four) work so beautiful largely due to their serious treatment of the subject matter. Despite hordes of rubber monkey masks, and dwindling budgets, these films weren’t afraid to delve into heavy emotions and melodrama. Burton didn’t understand this, and took his usual rout with the material, creating an action spectacle with its tongue firmly implanted in its cheek. My two favourite films in the original series, Escape from the Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, have their bouts with tongue-in-cheek humour (especially Escape), but ultimately are about characters, and heavy political concepts. In fact, the politics implied by Conquest were so heavy for the time that the film was heavily altered at the eleventh hour to soften the blow of the surprising revolutionary balance. Rise modernizes most of Conquest’s concepts, and generally speaking does soften the blow struck by the original film’s director’s cut version in the end (with good, realistic cause), but is true to the basic themes in its utter respect. In fact, Rise takes even bigger chances with the unusual concept, and spends large swaths of film focused on non-speaking, digitally created apes. There are so many ways this could’ve gone wrong, and even when it goes right, this approach requires a whole lot of participation from a mainstream audience, which is apparently asking a lot – even following the wild popularity of digital critter-heavy films like Transformers and Avatar.
Rise is, like so many of my favourite summer films of the last few years, an incredibly flawed film that escapes heavy criticism thanks to its dizzyingly high high-points. The occasional weaknesses in the screenplay, written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (the team behind the ‘meh’ The Relic and An Eye for an Eye screenplays), are similar to those found in Star Trek, District 9 and X-Men: First Class. Unlike those films, however, I find that the vast majority of this film works quite well as a structured story. The storytelling is straight forward, and features plenty of textbook screenwriting tricks, specifically a stable use of subtle foreshadowing and repeated motifs, and the mechanics of the story fit together with only a handful of rough edges. The missing elements are mostly in the human characters, most of whom are either entirely too flat, or entirely too broad. The ape characters are so brilliantly rounded despite a lack of dialogue that the contrasting dullness of the humans is all the more jarring. I do suspect that this was somewhat intended, as a means to get the human audience to root for the apes, similarly to District 9, which presented mostly cartoonishly evil humans in order to make the more innocent aliens appear more likeable, despite a lack of human facial expression, and a general lack of language. Rise has the advantage here thanks to our familiarity with the ape form, and the similarities between the human and ape physiologies. It’s still commendable that Wyatt and the screenwriters were willing to put a mainstream audience in the position of rooting against their own species, and really exciting that it worked. I’m perfectly willing to overlook some of the script’s minor nonsense (scientist types overlooking the incredibly obvious fact that a virus is spreading among the humans, or the fact that inhalants really shouldn’t work faster than injections, for example) for the sake of the successful chances taken.
I suspect that Wyatt spent so much time working with the technical aspects of the film, and was so focused on making Serkis’ performance work, that he kind of forgot that his human cast needed attention. I assume Brian Cox can perform admirably without any effort, and Tyler Labine tends to be an effortless performer as well, but Franco is all over the map, Freida Pinto looks like she’s going to fall asleep at any moment, and poor Tom Felton appears to have been hired entirely for his recognizability as Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter movies. Franco manages to sell a few key moments, but films like Milk and 127 Hours (even Spider-Man 3) prove he’s capable of so much more. I’m not sure Pinto has any real talent outside of her blinding beauty, so I’m willing to cut her plenty of slack, but I come away from this film feeling genuinely sorry for Felton, who might have come away from the Harry Potter phenomenon with the heaviest typecasting burden. The one human actor who excels is the ever-dependable John Lithgow, who offers Caesar the human connection he really needs for the audience to buy into his underlying humanity.
The much ballyhooed special effects, which certainly show their seams if you’re willing to look closely enough, are so special not because of any giant leaps in technology (which were pretty minor in the big scheme of special effects according to my understanding), but because they have so much character, and they’re treated as a natural part of the film atmosphere. The camera is free to move naturally around the apes as if they were actually in the scene, and Wyatt also avoids the temptation to pull the camera out of reality, save perhaps a few of the final act action scenes, where the visual contrast works in the film’s favour. Even the impossible single take shots make sense in terms of physical camera work. Wyatt’s handle on action is a great counterpoint to the masturbatory digital chaos of Michael Bay’s Transformers: Dark of the Moon. There’s a big Hollywood scope, but the dynamic sense is more anchored in reality, and the impassioned treatment of the characters ensures a heavier impact. Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt’s editing is also crucial in producing the correct rhythm to drive the spectacle of the action. The lack of arbitrary quick cutting, and the sense of concrete geography make all the difference.
Of course the biggest special effect in the entire film is Andy Serkis and his familiarity with the motion capture acting process, which he helped pioneer when he played Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. Like Gollum, Caesar works because he has a personality rarely found in digital-only performances, and due to advances in technology even more of his performance is captured for this character. That said, Serkis is mostly getting his due credit for the role (fingers crossed for that Oscar nom). It seems like critics are overlooking the fact that there are a handful of distinct character types in the digital apes, equating a series of incredible mo-cap performances. Rocket the alpha short-haired chimp (Terry Notary), Koba the scarred bonobo (Christopher Gordon), Buck the gorilla (Richard Ridings), and (especially) Maurice the circus orangutan (Karin Konoval) are among my favourite characters of the year, and worthy successors of Cornelius and Dr. Zaius.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is brimming with technology, but it’s shot on old fashion 35mm film, which gives the film a nice, slightly grainy texture. Stylistically, director Rupert Wyatt and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie try to maintain something like a natural style, but also choose to blow out a lot of the brightest highlights, and effectively fill out their 2.35:1 frame in a genuinely theatrical fashion. The majority of the look is based in wide, busy shots, but there’s also a tendency to shift focus, so between this and the blown out highlights, wide-angle details aren’t all that consistently sharp. The DVD copy I was also sent falls apart quite a bit here due to the complexity of elements. Fine details and textures are just about perfect, though there is a slight issue with the CG elements being a bit more highly detailed than the real elements. This doesn’t do the effects any favours in terms of interaction, but boy are those ape skin and hair textures incredible. I can’t help noticing that there’s a bit of an orange and teal base to this palette, but I’m going to ignore that for the sake of my own sanity. Overused or not, the palette allows for plenty of vibrant hue mixes, and some incredibly sharp red and yellow highlights, some of which do exhibit minor bleeding effects, which I actually find quite stylish. The warm and cool contrasts are sharp, and the hues themselves are consistently pure with only the natural grain to sully the clarity. Black levels look great in higher light situations, especially against those blown-out whites, but are a bit dulled during the darkest scenes.
There’s really very little down time on this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack, even though there’s plenty of dynamic range in the volume and aggressive nature of the sound. Some of the dialogue heavy, inside set sequences are more or less silent outside the center channel performances, but even these soft and simple mixes feature the possibility of builds in music, or sudden bumps in volume. The surround and stereo channels are lively with basic ambience throughout, but these builds in sound are where the track is at its strongest. The best uses of sound are usually action oriented, and the final act is massive with directional elements and surround channel attacks. The sound design of the apes themselves is also quite effective, creating a mix of reality and movie-magic hyperrealism. Buck the Gorilla’s roar is the prime example of ape sound design. His roar is often given a special stereo spread for emphasis. Other cool aural editions include rustling trees, buzzing helicopters, crashing vehicles, and a really punchy machine gun that pops the hell out of the LFE channel. Patrick Doyle’s score is on-point the entire film, and is often even used as the sole sound on the track for emphasis. Just when you think he’s blown his load, and is repeating himself a little too often, the third act rolls around, and he cuts beautifully between subtle undertones and big boisterous melodic themes. I really wouldn’t mind this particular score being nominated come Oscar time.
The extras on this ‘not quite as packed as it appears on the box art’ disc begin with two audio commentary tracks. The first track features director Rupert Wyatt working solo. Wyatt is warm and prepared, but leaves quite a bit of blank space, and too often speaks about the obvious aspects of the film, specifically tone and technical aspects. I appreciate him pointing out the intricacies of the special effects, and what he’s done with the film’s serious tone, but these are all too obvious behind the scenes aspects (especially for folks like me that listen to several commentary track over a month period). Things pick up when Wyatt discusses cinematography and style, but overall I was pretty disappointed. The second track features producers/writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver. I’m surprised to say I found this track much more interesting, where Jaffa and Silver touch mostly upon the screenwriting aspects of the film. They discuss the differences between the final film and their early drafts of the script, some of the themes they decided to explore, and despite a fair amount of blank space and stammering this track is an educational look at the organic process of screenwriting.
The commentaries are followed by a collection of 11 deleted/extended scenes (12:00, HD). These are a mix of completed footage, temp effects, storyboards, and cover a series of minor plot points and incidental character interactions. There’s one alternate version of a scene that would change Caesar’s character quite a bit, and the final scene is a tasty taste of things to come. It’s surprising how easy it is to accept Serkis’ performance minus effects.
Mythology of the Apes (7:10, HD) starts as a look at the original film series, but pretty quickly morphs into an EPK for this film. It includes brief interviews with Wyatt, Franco, Serkis, and writer/producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and features some brief behind the scenes footage mixed with footage from the film. The Genius of Andy Serkis (7:50, HD) rather obviously covers Serkis’ work on the film, and features Wyatt, actors Franco, Serkis, Tom Felton, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, Devyn Dalton (who doubled little Caesar), Jaffa, Silver, producers Dylan Clark and Kurt Williams, and effects supervisors Dan Lemmon, Joe Letteri, crushing on his performance and the technical aspects of the film. This doesn’t delve too deeply into the process, but acts as a good primer. A New Generation of Apes (9:40, HD) deals specifically with the digital effects, and features more interviews with the effects artists and motion capture performers. The motion capture process, technical aspects of computer animation, and anatomical research are covered.
Next up is a scene breakdown with three angle choices – final scene with PiP reference, early animation, and performance capture (1:30, HD), Breaking Motion Capture Boundaries (8:50, HD), a deconstruction of the process behind mo-capping the Golden Gate Bridge sequence, Composing the Score with Patrick Doyle (8:10, HD), where I learned the chorus is actually singing ‘I’ve got a cookie for you’ at one point, and The Great Apes (22:30, HD), individual looks at chimpanzees, gorillas, orangutans, which is actually quite fascinating. The disc also features a character concept art gallery and trailers.
Along with X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes proves that the Fox brass still have the balls to put unique blockbusters into production, and I find myself no longer assuming the worst for future Fox genre releases. Rise isn’t perfect, but it’s fresh, fun, and more emotionally involving than the average summer release. This disc looks very good (though the film’s style doesn’t make for the absolute most stunning transfer you’ll ever see), the DTS-HD MA sound is pitch-perfect, and the extras, though not quite what the box promises, are informative and entertaining.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 13th December 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French, Spanish and English Discriptive Audio
Subtitles: English SDH, Spanish
Extras: Director Commentary, Writers/Producers Commentary, Deleted/Extended/Alternate Scenes, The Genius of Andy Serkis, A New Generation of Apes, Scene Breakdown, Breaking Motion Capture Boundries, The Great Apes, Mythology of the Apes, Composing the Score with Patrick Doyle, Trailers, DVD Copy, Digital Copy
Easter Egg: No
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Cast: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton
Genre: Action, Adventure, Drama and Thriller
Length: 105 minutes
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