Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Starring: James Franco, John Lithgow. David Oyelowo, Tom Felton
Rated: PG-13, for violence and intense frightening sequences
Runtime: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Bottom line: Surprisingly smart and thrilling
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" might be the best of this summer's blockbusters, which no one in the world saw coming.
It's a "prequel," which is often synonymous with "bad movie," because prequels usually try to either explain the backstory of a successful movie, which we inferred perfectly well already, or they change that backstory in a transparent attempt to reboot the franchise.
I expected "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" to do little more than the former, to plod along from point A to Z until we exhaustively understand how Charlton Heston ended up with those "damned dirty apes."
Instead, this movie does something akin to the 2009 "Star Trek." It stands on its own without relying too much on the strength of the franchise, yet it doesn't ask us to forget the previous movies, either.
This is a retelling more than a prequel, and it works surprisingly well.
The story builds on a scenario extremely similar to the recent documentary "Project Nim." That film documents what happens when a handful of researchers and their families bring a young chimpanzee into their homes and try to raise it as a human child.
In "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," biochemical researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) brings home an infant ape whose mother was a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer's disease drug.
Will's father Charles (John Lithgow), who suffers from Alzheimer's, lives with Will and instantly adores the ape, whom he names Caesar. Will's experimental drug heightened the intelligence of Caesar's mother before her unfortunate death, and it cures Charles. Will soon discovers that Caesar inherited his mother's extraordinary intelligence.
Will and Charles raise Caesar in their home, and in many ways he is more human than ape. But just like in "Project Nim," Caesar's ape nature eventually emerges.
After an incident in which Caesar injures a neighbor while trying to protect Charles, Caesar is placed in a primate facility that is more prison than sanctuary. This is when Caesar begins to develop into one of the more interesting characters we've seen in some time.
He resents Will for abandoning him, he misses Charles, he is forced to assimilate into a primate society for the first time and he is abused by his new keepers. He possesses the intelligence and self-awareness of a young man yet he can't verbally communicate his feelings.
It would have been easy for the filmmakers to mutate Caesar into a villain and turn this into the usual exploitative summer monster movie. Caesar does, of course, lead his fellow primates down certain destructive paths.
However, Caesar maintains his humanity and complexity throughout the film and becomes the hero.
The villains are the CEO of the biochemical corporation (David Oyelowo), who heartlessly disregards the damage his company's research inflicts on the apes, and one of Caesar's handlers at the facility (Tom Felton), who enjoys torturing the animals.
It is Caesar, an ape created using motion-capture and CGI, who emerges as the most human of characters. We, on the other hand, are asked to consider what, other than biology, makes us human. Not a new question, but one which still resonates.
Andy Serkis performed Caesar's role during the motion-capture process. Serkis gained famed for his portrayal of Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and he turns in another brilliant pantomime performance here.
The animators deserve huge credit, too, for embuing all the primates with believable emotions.
Does "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" reboot the franchise? Resurrect is more accurate, since this property was essentially dead.
The original "Planet of the Apes" came out in 1968, and a quick succession of sequels and TV series ground the franchise deep into the ground. Tim Burton's 2001 remake did nothing to revive the franchise.
Well, now it's back, and if director Rupert Wyatt handles the sequels with the same care and compassionate as this, that is very good news.
Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.