Rise of the Planet of the Apes

All too often it seems Hollywood has a penchant for releasing a ‘Huh? They’re really making that??’ movie.  In fact, my response to the news of a prequel to Planet of the Apes was just that.  I didn’t see the need to revisit a franchise that had laid dormant for a decade.  Of all the summer blockbusters released over the last three months, this one interested me the least.  Go figure that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the best movies of this summer or any summer.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a geneticist on the verge of a medical breakthrough.  He has designed a serum that has the potential to cure Alzheimer’s disease.  This venture has impassioned him as he watches his father (John Lithgow) fall victim to the illness.  After testing on apes, the research proves that the cure is functional and ready for human trials.  Unfortunately, a laboratory accident prevents potential investors of the drug from approving it.  Will’s project faces termination, as do the apes.  Unable to kill a newborn chimp, Will takes in little Caesar only to see that the drug has been genetically passed on from the chimp’s mother.  Will documents Caesar’s increased brain activity and motor functions over the course of several years.

Caesar has extraordinary capabilities.  He can write, read, use sign language, reason, and protect.  It doesn’t take long for him to realize that outside of Will’s home, the rest of society sees him as a dangerous pet—unequal to that of a human.  He feels the isolation of being an outcast and is ultimately taken by the state to a facility for apes after a violent accident.  Caesar is abused and mistreated, as are the other apes in confinement.  He sees only one solution to free his companions and stop the maltreatment of his kind.

If you thought Rise would be a noisy spectacle without a brain in its head, let me surprise you—this could be the thinking man’s movie of the season.  Directed by Rupert Wyatt, the film restores this franchise and provides an ample amount of emotion and heart to the blockbuster.  Forget about the humans onscreen—this movie is all about Caesar, an impressive digital creation of motion capture technology played by Andy Serkis of Lord of the Rings fame.  Serkis gives Caesar a real performance, providing the apes a reason to become angry, impassioned, willed, and ultimately the dominant species of the planet.  Wyatt succeeds in combining a rock solid story with heartfelt drama and impressive special effects that will likely contend as the year’s best.

The film also draws up important questions about the limits of science and where we draw the line in the quest to advance medicine.  Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes only flirted with the idea of one species being a slave to another as a matter of moral significance.  Rise dives in head-first and has the audience weigh out the pros and the cons.  Of course the film leads up to a massive ape revolution that has been showcased in the advertisements, but the writers and Wyatt make more out of this golden opportunity than a stage of destruction—they’ve given us a story of an ape fighting for his place in this world.  This left me wondering if there could be a more human film this season than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

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