As its title suggests Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended to lay the foundation for a new franchise of sci-fi flicks in which humans and super-intelligent apes battle for earthly supremacy. Its duty then is to explain within the span of two hours and with a modicum of credulity how exactly our simian friends might come to supplant us atop the animal kingdom. The scenario was at least partially addressed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes the fourth entry in the original series’ convoluted and time-warped canon and while Wyatt's film draws inspiration from Conquest it is by no means a remake. Nor for that matter is related in any way to Tim Burton’s underwhelming 2001 entry. (And thank goodness for that.)
The titular rise begins as with many of the world’s great catastrophes with the actions of one highly irresponsible man. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist of prodigious talent and questionable ethics who works at a fancy San Francisco biotech firm called Gen-Sys (subtle!). His effort at producing a cure for Alzheimer’s Disease carries an ulterior motive: His father (John Lithgow) suffers from it and is close to entering its final stages. Will is close to a breakthrough when one of his chimpanzee test subjects goes well apesh*t causing his company’s suitably callous CEO Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo gamely spewing lines like “I run a business not a petting zoo!") to order the research facility’s entire chimp population liquidated.
Will is busy carrying out the grim mandate when he discovers that one of the test chimps has borne an offspring one he can’t bring himself to euthanize. Instead he and his primatologist girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto gorgeous and superfluous) partners in appallingly bad decision-making decide to raise the infant chimp as their own naming it Caesar. Having inherited his mother’s gene modifications he shows signs of advanced intelligence and quickly develops a close bond with his adoptive human parents. But Caesar soon outgrows his domestic habitat and eventually must be shipped off to a simian “sanctuary” that is in reality anything but.
At this point we’re halfway through the film – and miles away from erudite apes and enslaved humans. To get us on track director Wyatt executes a rather audacious tonal shift transitioning abruptly from what was heretofore a fairly sober Project Nim dramatization into the balls-out apes-gone-wild summer action flick promised by the film’s trailers. His efforts are aided tremendously by his screenwriters Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa whose clever absorbing script offers just enough plausibility in the first half to make its increasingly loony second half not just palatable but downright enjoyable. Wyatt strikes a delicate thematic balance respecting the subject matter while acknowledging its inherent silliness. (Scattered throughout the film are sly nods to previous Planet of the Apes films as well as a glimpse of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.)
The silliness accelerates seemingly by the frame in Rise’s latter half as Caesar mounts a conspiracy to escape his Dickensian squalor exact revenge upon his cartoonishly malevolent captors and take his simian revolution to the streets. And it only gets crazier from there – the third act is basically a PETA wet dream. As far as cautionary tales go Rise is about as cautionary as they come.
Andy Serkis who performed all of the performance-capture work for Caesar is a marvel in the role though the question remains as to how the credit should be divvied up between him and the technicians at WETA digital who “painted” the character’s CG features. And make no mistake Caesar is very much a character – as well-rounded and fully-formed and convincing as they come and easily more compelling than any of his non-digital counterparts. Franco for his part is credible enough as a scientist who in spite of his academic credentials is a bit of a dolt (and perhaps a tad disturbed) and Lithgow tackles a relatively thankless role with grace. But the real stars are all those damn dirty apes.
Well if the title doesn’t say it all…Picking up where Alien vs. Predator left off those pesky aliens cause the Predator ship to crash on Earth setting them free near a Colorado town. A lone Predator (Ian Whyte encoring from AvP) comes to Earth to clean up the mess and what the hell maybe pick up a few human trophies too. Needless to say the town’s human residents are completely unprepared for this sort of inter-galactic free-for-all on their streets. This is after all the sort of town where everybody knows everybody but no one seems to notice when a spaceship crashes in the woods outside of town or when the self-same spaceship blows up the next day. In short you could say that they get what’s coming to them--and they sure do. Pretty dreadful all around. Then again Shane Salerno’s script is pointless to begin with. Steven Pasquale (TV’s Rescue Me) plays the ex-con hero Dallas (a nod to the original Alien). Reiko Aylesworth (TV’s 24) plays a veteran of the Gulf War who returns stateside just in time to engage in another one--a pretty pale homage to Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley character. John Ortiz plays the local sheriff one of the dullest (and dumbest) screen lawmen in recent memory. Veteran Robert Joy drops in briefly as a weasely U.S. Army colonel who would just as soon nuke the town as try to save it. Every time this film focuses on the (one-dimensional) human characters it stops cold. Unfortunately this happens a lot. There’s no reason to root for them because you simply don’t care. True to form most of them are sliced diced chopped lasered exploded from within and otherwise treated in a shabby fashion. They are simply fodder. Just for the record this is the sixth Alien film and the fourth Predator film and it holds the dubious distinction of being the worst of any of them. The special effects are just dandy but not much else is. This also marks the inauspicious feature directorial debut of noted visual effects artists Colin and Greg Strause (billed as “The Brothers Strause”). They clearly have an affinity for this sort of thing--and for the Alien and Predator franchises--but are just as clearly content to simply let the special effects run away with the story. The first Alien vs. Predator movie was no great shakes but it was better than it had any right to be. This one is not. Responding to the fans who wanted this film to be R-rated the Brothers Strause have delivered on that--and absolutely nothing more. It’s a pointless exercise.
In those rare incidences a sequel can actually be better than the original. Such is the case with X2: X-Men United where this time around the X-Men--including mind-benders Prof. Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen); optically enhanced Scott/Cyclops (James Marsden); weather controller Storm (Halle Berry); Rogue (Anna Paquin) aptly named newcomers Bobby/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) and John/Pyro (Aaron Stanford); and last but not least the hunky yet steely Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman)--have their work cut out for them trying to keep the peace between the human and mutant races. After a teleporting mutant assailant known as Nightcrawler (Alan Cumming) attacks the White House relations between mutants and humans take a turn for the worse starting an anti-mutant movement. The movement is fueled by baddie scientist William Stryker (Brian Cox) who bears a grudge against mutants and his henchwoman Lady Deathstrike (Kelly Hu) both of whom have a mysterious connection to Wolverine's past. They seek to wipe out all the mutants on Earth by manipulating Xavier and his all-powerful machine Cerebro--a machine that can locate and even destroy every mutant and/or human on the planet in mere moments using mind power. Stryker is in for a fight though. Militant mutants the iron-clad Magneto (Ian McKellen) and morph-happy Mystique (Rebecca Romijn-Stamos) join forces with the X-Men to stop this madman--but of course they have their own agendas. Can the X-Men repair the rift in mutant/human co-existence? Or is war imminent? Guess we'll have to wait until X3.
X2 does a nice job giving its comic book heroes and villains more of an emotional core than in the first X-Men. The relationships have deepened and are further explored with Jackman's haunted Logan/Wolverine looking for clues to his past still a standout. Janssen another standout gets more to chew on as Jean whose triangle with Logan and Scott grows more complicated and her character arc takes a surprising turn. But will somebody please write Halle Berry out of this franchise? They say her blonde wig was improved for the sequel but it's as unbelievable as her acting. As for the kids Paquin and Ashmore sweetly play out Rogue and Bobby's budding love story but its Stanford's sullen John who holds the most interest as you see his resentment toward humans growing and luring him to the dark side. In the villains' corner Cox plays Stryker as stonily evil as he can while Romijn-Stamos seems to have a lot more fun as the ultra-cool Mystique even getting to shed the blue paint in one scene and simply use her feminine wiles to get what she wants. Cumming too seems to enjoy being blue as the bible quoting German-accented Nightcrawler who really isn't so bad after all (and has one of the snazzier entrances in the movie). But the most compelling relationship by far has to be between Xavier and Magneto. British thesps Stewart and McKellen portray the two as the old friends they are but whose disparaging views on how mutants and humans should interact has torn them apart giving the film some dramatic weight.
With the original X-Men director Bryan Singer had the dubious task of introducing all of the Marvel comic book's attributes and characters in a way that would appease rabid fans and newbies while also creating a compelling movie with a beginning middle and end. The result was adequate but a tad muddled and cartoonish. With X2 however Singer is able to fine-tune those characters and delve further into the story's universal theme: ridding the world of xenophobia and creating a peaceful co-existence. The three-tiered points of view--from Magneto's defiantly anti-human stance to Stryker's anti-mutant attempts at genocide and Xavier's hopes to find a happy middle ground--parallels today's political climate and actually makes you ponder the world's affairs even while you are watching the very cool very mutant-esque action. X2 leaves you wanting more to find out what is going to happen next to these people. Honestly if there is a war between mutants and humans who do you think is going to win? If only I could use powers of telepathy…