Rise of the Planet of the Apes Review

(3.5 STARS)

Who would have thought the worst titled movie of the summer would also be the best? But Rise of the Planet of Apes has it all. It’s a magnificent film with breathtaking special effects, exceptional pacing, and a ton of heart. Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar for his incredibly realistic, motion-capture portrayal of Caesar, the ape who leads his kind out of the zoos and cages and into a place of power. The film is almost like Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith in that you know how the story ends. The pleasure, of course, is getting there.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is on the verge of a breakthrough. After years of testing his neurogenesis drugs (which would allow the brain to build its own cells and help cure Alzheimer’s), he’s found a formula that works. That is, it works on one of his test apes…for a little while. The ape shows considerable intellectual growth for days, but she also becomes vicious, so she and the other apes are put down.

Will, however, saves one ape, her newborn son, and he raises it like a child. Caesar is his name, and he, Will, and Will’s Alzheimer’s ridden father (John Lithgow) form a close family. Caesar seems to have inherited his mother’s super-intelligence, without the negative side effects. Will rejoices at his success (and begins using the drug on his father), but as Caesar gets older, his natural tendencies not only come out, but are intensified, especially after he’s imprisoned at an “ape sanctuary” and tortured by its operators (Brian Cox and Tom Felton). But alone, he is nothing, so he rallies his fellow apes together and prepares them for a fight.

With the release of Apes, it’s probably safe to call the Best Visual Effects race at next year’s Oscars over. What’s accomplished here is unbelievable. The apes are totally convincing and convey emotion better than most humans (including those in this film). Besides the apes themselves, however, the film has a truly spectacular climactic sequence atop (and below) the Golden Gate Bridge. Everything from the camerawork to the score to the special effects in this scene is exactly what you’d hope for from a summer movie.

My only major issue with the film involved the human characters. James Franco is merely OK as Will. He definitely has more charisma than he showed at this past Oscar ceremony, but after 127 Hours, we know he’s capable of greatness. Here, it looks like he just wants his check. Worse, however, is Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto. Her character has absolutely no purpose.

Somewhere between the special effects and acting camps is Andy Serkis, whose work as Caesar is wonderful. Serkis, of course, is the same man who brought Gollum and King Kong to life. In many ways, Caesar is a more complicated creature. Not only do we see him age from birth to full adulthood, but he also undergoes a total shift in temperament and worldview. As a child, Caesar is innocent, curious, and loving. As an adult, he’s determined, proud, and unafraid of anything. Not an easy transformation for an actor playing a human, nevermind one playing an ape.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far better than it has any right in being when you consider it was made by a rookie director (Rupert Wyatt, whose direction is assured far beyond his experience) and is without dialogue for a considerable portion of its running time (the apes use sign language). Plus, it’s a prequel to a bad remake of a 1968 camp classic. I mean, was anyone clamoring to see this film get made? But it did, and now, I’ll just have to sit here and eat crow. Apes is damn good, and shame on me for not giving it a fair chance.

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