STARRING: James Franco, Tom Felton, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, Tyler Labine, David Hewlett, Sonja Bennett, Jamie Harris, Leah Gibson, David Oyelowo, Chelah Horsdal, Karin Konoval, Kis Yurij, Richard Ridings, Terry Notary, Jesse Reid

2011, 105 Minutes, Directed by:
Rupert Wyatt

Just like their species' ultimate fate in the science-fiction mythos of this franchise about a planet Earth populated by sentient, intelligent apes, the human characters of Rise of the Planet of the Apes don't fare well. That's probably the way it should be . . .

Not a prequel to either the original 1968 Planet of the Apes or the maligned 2001 remake, but a new starting point, the film uses its human beings as an entry point to the apes' story (or, better, the story of one particular chimpanzee who begins a revolutionary exodus), serving, in order, as oppressors, models of compassion, and, in the end, obstacles to freedom.

The humans must, of course, be left in the dust as the screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver concerns itself more with how those human characteristics rub off on its actual hero. He is Caesar (a digital creation based on the motion-capture performance of Andy Serkis, the man who now officially owns that unique terrain of acting), a chimpanzee who is born in secret in a lab shortly before his mother died to protect him.

We must, I suppose, use pronouns that typically identify humans when referring to Caesar, since he is, ironically, the most human-seeming character in the film.

His mother was a test subject for a new drug that could be the cure of Alzheimer's. Its creator Will Rodman (James Franco) has some personal experience with the disease, as his father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from it. Will brings the baby Caesar, imbued with heightened intelligence, home to save him from euthanization and raises him.

The conflict in the human realm of the story is based almost entirely on simple ideas.

Will wants to help others, while Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), the owner of the company for which he works, only sees profits or the loss thereof in the development of the drug. Will is determined to save the life of his father, while his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto), a veterinarian at the zoo whose relationship with Will is established after a single scene of the two looking over an injured Caesar, believes there are certain things with which people should not tamper with.

The emotional weight of humanity therefore is placed almost entirely on the shoulders of Will's relationship with his father, and it works on a basically sympathetic level. The closing moment of their bond, played entirely in silence, is especially effective.

"A surprisingly thoughtful film and solid foundation for a new franchise!"

This, though, is Caesar's story, and the events surrounding Will's work and personal life are present primarily to inform the chimpanzee's growth. Caesar spends his day in Will's house, swinging and climbing; he stares out an attic window at children playing and longs for such an opportunity.

In a misguided attempt to do the same, he meets with the anger of a neighbor (David Hewlett)—the capacity for violence. Adept at signing, Caesar can communicate with Will, and after seeing a dog on a leash during an outing to the redwood forest outside of San Francisco, he asks his friend if he is a pet.

By this time, the chimp has matured from a playful youngster to a moping teenager, searching for his place in the world. Will reveals Caesar's past to him while sitting outside of the lab where he was born, and the hints of the potential for systematic cruelty in the condensed version of the tale are solidified when Caesar becomes the ward of a deceptive shelter owner (Brian Cox) and his malicious son (Tom Felton).

Again, Charles is vital. Through Caesar's interaction with the father, there is a caring side to his personality, like when he adjusts Charles' fork to aid him in eating as his mental capabilities further deteriorate or the look of concern and fear on Caesar’s face while hugging Charles after the chimp's primal, defensive instincts kick in against the neighbor's demeaning of the poor, confused man.

None of these myriad of emotions would be possible without the work of Serkis and the visual effects. If some of the effects are less than seamless, they more than make up for that deficit in the tangible illusion of reality in Caesar's facial animations. Director Rupert Wyatt wisely avoids anthropomorphizing the menagerie of other apes that Caesar encounters during his time in captivity, emphasizing Caesar's unique position as a leader among them.

It all builds to a final clash between apes and humans, and Wyatt handles the chaotic dash from civilization with focus. It is not so much a battle as it is a mass migration, with the overall attention focused on Caesar's goal. The impediments along the way, such as a firing squad on the Golden Gate Bridge or a standoff with a helicopter, are well-organized set pieces along the way.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a surprisingly thoughtful film. It serves as a solid foundation for what will most likely be a new series of entries to a decades-old franchise, and, above all, it's a reminder that the most valuable special effects are the ones that convey a soul hiding behind artificial eyes.

- Mark Dujsik



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