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.
Chris Brander (Ryan Reynolds) a smooth L.A. music exec used to be shy fat and the butt of jokes back in high school. The only bright spot was his close friendship with Jamie Palamino (Amy Smart) a super-popular cheerleader. He of course wanted to be more than just friends but she just didn’t feel the same way. Fast forward to the present Chris has turned into a calculating ladies man who finds himself back in his hometown. He runs into the lovely Jamie and the old feelings resurface. He tries to woo her as the new and improved Chris. But unbelievably Chris finds it even more difficult than ever to escape the clutches of the “friend zone”--or as Chris describes “the penalty box of dating in which a guy becomes a complete nonsexual entity in her eyes like her brother or a lamp.” Ah a zone many men have stepped into. Reynolds’ glib sense of humor has brightened some pretty bad films (Blade: Trinity) and even a horror film (The Amityville Horror). But unfortunately he isn’t nearly as effective as the romantic comedy lead. His consistent sardonic delivery soon starts to grate. And while Smart (The Butterfly Effect) is delightfully perky and down to earth as Jamie there isn’t much zing with Reynolds--another big red flag. However there are some bright spots. Anna Faris (the Scary Movie series) nearly steals the show as a whiny no-talent pop singer whose diva-esque behavior hits close to home. Also hilarious is Christopher Marquette (The Girl Next Door) as Chris’ girl-crazy younger brother. Watching the two brothers slap the spit out of each other is just plain good stuff. Just Friends actually has a pretty good set-up which makes it all the more disappointing the film can’t completely hold up. Roger Kumble (The Sweetest Thing) just paints by the numbers never really offering anything new or different. The best parts are the flashbacks to the early ’90s when the overweight Chris is lip-synching “I Swear” in the mirror or writing the 100 reasons why Jamie is such a great girl. It really will take some of us back a bit. But as you sit there mildly laughing at the film’s earnest attempts at pure hilarity you can’t help wonder what this film would have been like in the hands of say the Farrelly brothers. Just Friends could have definitely used some of There's Something About Mary’s mean-spiritedness and crude bathroom humor.
Richard Riddick (Vin Diesel) has a really bad rep and with good reason: Five years ago convicted killer Riddick escaped the galaxy's law enforcement during a botched interplanetary prison transfer and has been on the lam ever since. As The Chronicles of Riddick picks up our antagonist finds his relative freedom has been compromised when mercenaries out for the $1 million bounty on his head discover his location and hunt him down. Riddick escapes their clutches steals their ship and sets off for Planet Helion to find Imam (Keith David) the Muslim cleric he rescued in Pitch Black and the only person who could have squealed his location to authorities. But while Riddick's hunch about Imam are correct the cleric has a reason for luring the mammoth murderer out of hiding: Helion is falling to unholy armies of Necromongers--warriors who conquer by force in the vein of Star Trek's Borg. Of course Riddick doesn't give a damn about the Helions or their plight--until he gets wind that the Necromogers want to kill him because of an old prophecy that foresees their end at Riddick's hands. Like it or not Riddick is left with no other choice but to battle the Necromongers.
The character of Riddick is unquestionably what made Pitch Black one of the most sequel-worthy sci-fi films in years. And Riddick would not have been one of sci-fi's most intoxicating characters if it weren't for Diesel. Like his Dominic Toretto in the 2001 actioner The Fast and the Furious Riddick is a villain of few words but when he speaks his carefully chosen words have impact--even if the dialogue is at times overly theatrical. Riddick is the perfect antihero; a cold-blooded and indifferent being who somehow evokes more compassion than the film's so-called good guys. Joining Riddick are some recurring characters including David as Imam but Riddick benefits the most from the addition of some new characters particularly Colm Feore as Lord Marshal the Necromonger leader whose goal is to rid the universe of all human life. Feore channeling nuggets of Julius Caesar into his role makes for one of Riddick's most thrilling foes. Another prominent addition to the cast is Judi Dench who has a surprisingly small role as Aereon an Elemental captured by the Necromongers and used for her special powers including ESP.
Writer/director David Twohy took his horror pic Pitch Black which gained a cult following since it was released four years ago and managed to successfully turn it into an sci-fi actioner of epic proportions. Everything is grander here which is almost a given considering Twohy shot Pitch Black on a dime in Australia using colored filters. In Riddick the director distinguishes the film's different environments--the Necros' mothership Crematoria's cavernous prison and Helion--using warm to cool tones that are dazzling yet more subtle than its predecessor. The CGI effects get a little gamey at times but production designer Holger Gross' gargantuan sets are impressive and help craft Twohy's otherworldly vision into a plausible one. And although Twohy jumps genres from Pitch Black to its sequel his storyline evolves logically from the original premise. But while moviegoers unfamiliar with Pitch Black will be able to follow the story easily enough they may have a difficult time grasping what makes Riddick such a big deal; the film explains the legend but never fully captures its quintessence. This could hurt Riddick's chances to broaden its Pitch Black fan base.
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…
Before the main feature begins audiences are treated to an added bonus--The Flight of the Osiris a really cool $5 million computer-animated short film created by Matrix writer-director brothers Andy and Larry Wachowski that connects the story to the next installment The Matrix Reloaded. Taking place after The Matrix left off it's a wild ride showing one rebel ship trying to fight off the evil machines--and unfortunately losing the battle. Done in the animated futuristic style of last year's Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within the film will certainly whet Matrix fans' appetites. Moving on....As with any good King tale Dreamcatcher begins with relationships. This time the action centers on four best friends--the agreeable Jonsey (Damian Lewis) the tortured Henry (Thomas Jane) the flippant Beaver (Jason Lee) and the lovelorn Pete (Timothy Olyphant)--who as kids 20 years ago saved a mentally challenged kid named Duddits (Donnie Wahlberg) from some bullies and somehow were bestowed with uncanny powers of telepathy by the eerie little kid that bonded them all beyond ordinary friendship. Now as adults they feel burdened by their powers but soon find out how glad they are they still have them. When the guys head to a hunting cabin in the woods for their annual blowing-off-steam session the happy reunion is cut short by a deadly alien force which has invaded their snowy surroundings. While the U.S. military lead by Colonel Abraham Curtis (Morgan Freeman) and Capt. Owen Underhill (Tom Sizemore) quarantines the area to get rid of the infectious alien presence known as the "Ripley" (named after the main character in Alien) the foursome are haplessly drawn into the aliens' evil plan finding themselves once again inexplicably linked to their old friend the now cancer-stricken Duddits. It's a race against time to stop the invasion but the four men use all their strength to stand together--one last time.
The natural rapport and strong bond between the four main characters needs to be believable to make Dreamcatcher palatable. Fortunately the actors playing them live up to the task and when they are all on screen at one time it works; unfortunately scenes featuring all of them are few and far between. The British Lewis who was so damn good in HBO's Band of Brothers as leader Richard Winters gets his first starring role in a feature film and brings the same level of quiet intensity to his Jonesy as he did to Brothers. Olyphant (Go) and Jane (The Sweetest Thing) play Pete and Henry like they've been lifelong pals offscreen while Wahlberg is almost unrecognizable as Duddits proving he can get rid of those good looks and put in a nice performance. And finally Jason Lee who's been suppressing his witty sarcastic self far too long in stinkers such as A Guy Thing steals the show as the curse-word lovin'--and incredibly brave--Beaver. The plot line revolving around Freeman's and Sizemore's characters is far less interesting with Freeman turning in his usual steady performance but somehow missing the mark as Curtis a military man who has seen way too much.
The talent behind Dreamcatcher is clearly evident. Director/co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and co-writer William Goldman do a wonderful job setting up the action with the quick back and forth dialogue between the four men. It gives you an immediate intimacy with the main characters something King likes to do in his writing as well. Kasdan also uses interesting imagery of a large and dusty library that represents the inside of Jonesy's mind where he hangs out and shuffles old boxes full of memories around to make room for new ones. When the alien takes over Jonesy's body Kasdan frames the action by showing Jonesy trapped inside this library watching what is happening to his friends and trying desperately to keep the invading menace at bay. Ultimately though just when it should jump on the horrific momentum it's built up the film begins to fall apart as we move away from the four main characters and start dealing with the military operation. Perhaps the main problem lies in the fact it is too derivative--of other alien movies (Independence Day meets Alien meets The Thing) and worse of other Stephen King movies (Stand By Me meets It meets The Tommyknockers). In other words it ends up being a highly anticlimactic rehash.