Some of you know, that if there's one thing I'm more obsessively into than movies, it's monkeys/apes. It started with a childhood collection of suffed monkeys that has never gone away. So, on that level I was predisosped to like this movie. Plus, I'm a fan of the campy 1968 original. On the other hand, despite the amazing ape make-up and effects, I really didn't like Tim Burton's 2001 remake. And the odds seemed really high that this was just a B sci-fi movie dumped at the end of the summer. I wanted to like it, but my expectation was that at best I would get a guilty pleasue.
Therefore, it was a shock to find that Rise of the Planet of the Apes ranks among the very best films of summer 2011. And that's not just me talking. The vast majority of critics walking out of that screening came out saying "I'm going to take crap for this, but I loved it." Then, when the reviews started pouring out nationally, we discovered this was the prevailing attitude. We don't have to be embarrased: Rise of the Planet Apes really is a great summer movie. In fact, it's smarter, and more emotionally involving than anything else I've seen this summer, with the possible exceptions of Super 8 and Harry Potter.
The story begins with a young scientist, Will Rodman (James Franco), doing research on chimpanzees, with a drug to replace brian cells, hoping he can cure Alzheimer's disease. When something goes wrong and the original 12 specimens are put down, Will discovers a baby chimp left behind by Bright-Eyes, the most advanced specimen. Knowing the baby would also be put down, he takes it home, to temporarily care for it until he can find a safe haven. But the chimp bonds with Will and his father (John Lithgow), who, it turns out, suffer's from advanced Alzheimer's, giving a personal motivation to Will's work. What's more, Ceaser (this is what they name the chimp) shows remarkable signs of intelligence, giving hope to further study, and potentially curing Will's father.
Yes, of course it eventually leads to action, but it's surprising how character driven this film is, especially considering that the lead character is Caeser, played by the great Andy Serkis (who previously wowd as Golllum and King Kong) in performance capture animation. Caeser is one of the most compelling characters we've seen all year, and Serkis brings us into every emotion and though. It's an astounding combination of acting and effects, both of which should be considered for Academy Awards (I suspect the effects are almost a soe-in, but I question whether the Academy will deign to honor a mocap performance, as they already should have done for Serkis with Gollum and Kong) making for an exceptional movie experience. Franco is also quite good, and Lithgow shocks by choosing a Planet of the Apes movie as one of the time he DOESN'T overact, making for a touching performance. The one thing that feels like a misstep is the casting of Tom "Draco Malfoy" Felton as an abusive animal handler in a chimp sanctuary. 8 films as Malfoy, and he follows it up playing another unlikable jerk? I felt awful for him, even though he was playing it well (complete with nearly flawless American accent). But, then, Felton is called on to deliver a line that could utterly ruin the film if delivered poorly, and he nails it, helping make the sequence a highlight of the film, and one of the most memorable of the entire year.
When the action suspense scenes kick in, they're first-rate. Think of a combination of Jurassic Park and Braveheart with apes. The climactic final battle (I'm not spoiling, even the poster gives away that much) rivals the climax of Avatar for spectacular thrills. But the film never loses sight of its humanity . . . er, apesosity. Rather than descending into just an apes vs. humans horror thriller, it becomes a fight for freedom and survivial that engages our emotions and allows to relate to and connect emotionally with the apes, without making us forget that we kind of like some humans, too.
Rupert Wyatt demonstrates that he is a huge talent to watch for. He and his screenwriters very wisely choose to aoid the self-parody that made Burton's film such a groaner, instead creating a gripping drama and thriller. While the pseudo-science of the film isn't exactly true to real-life science, it does what a movie like this has to do, making the science feel real in a way that enables the more discerning viewer to say "I buy that." It's certainly more believable than the explanation given in Escape of the Planet of the Apes, wherein we're asked to accept that a plague wiped out all of the dogs and cats and humans chose apes as pets (as a columnist for Chud.com put it "People had pet gorillas farting around in their apartments?"), and then the apes saw their evolution accelrate through their proximity to humans.
I still feel kind of weird actually saying it, but, darn it, I loved Rise of the Planet of the Apes, and it wasn't just the monkey enthusiast in me, it was my analytical film critic side. This is one of the great creature features, and it's full of heart, as well.