'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' Sneak Peek at Cal Tech Review - The Calm Before the Revolution

Hearing Clare Richardson [President and CEO of The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund] say, “It’s a terrible shame James Franco isn’t here. He’s quite dishy, isn’t he?” was worth the price of admission alone - heroes are people too. Mr. Franco’s absence notwithstanding (for the record, he wasn’t scheduled to appear anyway) Cal Tech’s sneak peak at the upcoming 20th Century Fox release Rise of the Planet of the Apes, set to hit theaters on August 5, was a great way to, as panel moderator, Variety’s David Cohen, put it, “celebrate the destruction of society as we know it.”

Frieda Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") and James Franco as Dr. Will Rodman, the man who, in the process of finding a cure for Alzheimer's, inadvertently sparks a primate revolution

In addition to Cohen and Richardson, Thursday night’s panel included Cal Tech professor of philosophy,Dr. Steven R. Quartz, actor Andy Serkis (Lord of the Rings, King Kong), Weta Digital (who created all of the ape actors for the film) Senior Digital Effects Supervisor, Joe Letteri, and the film’s director, Rupert Wyatt. The topics for discussion were equally diverse - as such an eclectic panel would indicate. Serkis, who Wyatt referred to as “the Charlie Chaplin of our time,” was on hand via Skype to provide some insight into his process of physically creating the character of Cesar, a chimpanzee who achieves sentience via an experimental drug to cure Alzheimer‘s Disease. Meanwhile, Letteri demonstrated how Weta Digital pushed the boundaries of motion capture even further than the already have by inventing a technology that be used anywhere - not just in a studio. The result, as evidenced in some of the scenes that were shown, is more intuitive, and thus more realistic, performances from the actors who can react to one another on a set, rather than with tennis balls on poles (the standard proxy for digital characters) in a sound stage.

Hopefully, the home video release will have extras, so that we can see how intense Andy Serkis' performance really is

However, just in case the discussion strayed too far from science, and too much toward fiction, Richardson and Quartz kept things rooted in reality by talking about (respectively) the characteristics of great apes, as well as the impact of human activity on ape populations; and the implications of socializing primates in a human society. To summarize: although we should continue to observe apes - just because they’re our closest neighbors in the animal kingdom doesn’t mean we should be together. More to the point, they’re not asking to be part of our society, either. And if you can, give to the Gorilla Fund. Protecting great apes in their natural environment is no small endeavor, and the work they do is vital. Plus, even thought it’s just a movie, you never know… It might be a good idea to start treating our primate cousins just a tad better.

Clare Richardson of the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund (left) and Cal Tech's own Dr. Steven R. Quartz (right)

Of course, the centerpiece of the evening was a sneak peak at the latest installment in the Planet of the Apes franchise. This time around, the story is set in the present day, and as opposed to rehashing old material, it sets out to add dimension to the world of the 1968 film by answering the question of what happened to transform great apes into the overlords of the human race. Though there is a sort of evolution present in the existing films and, an ape named Cesar leads the revolution against humanity (before making peace with the humans - remember, there are five movies), there wasn’t really an explanation as to how the apes achieved sentience. With that as a point of departure, the film appears to be (to be clear, “sneak peak” did not mean an advance screening of the film - just key scenes) a statement on shoddy, disposable way animals are treated, with a dash of cautionary tale.

Having not seen the entire film (yet), I can only say that all indications point toward a great time at the movies. While all of the Planet of the Apes films are fun, they’ve never been particularly issue oriented, or deep. [Which I don’t mind at all.] So it’s nice to see that Wyatt has the vision to see beyond the campiness, and find an allegory in all the carnage beyond Heston’s histrionics at the end of the first film. And …Apes purists who might be concerned that Fox is doing an about face with the franchise, need only watch the trailer. It’s one of the few franchise films this summer that is not a remake, or a re-imagining, or a reboot. Yet still, it fits in almost seamlessly (no matter what, special effects have simply gotten much better over the years) with Planet of the Apes lore.

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