'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' shines in long list of summer films

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(Courtesy of 20th Century Fox)

It’s surprising what 20th Century Fox has pulled off this summer. The studio took two franchises that had been derailed by abysmal films and brought them back with a pair of prequels that no one really wanted to see. With both “X-Men: First Class” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” they made it into smart, adult science-fiction films that tackle big, interesting issues with heart and ambition. And these two big summer event films are among the most memorable of this year’s offerings.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes” dives headlong into the muddled chronology of the original franchise, and it’s never quite clear if this film fits into the continuity of the previous films. But that doesn’t really matter, because this film isn’t really about apes overtaking the world.

It’s simply the story of Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape whose mother was injected with a drug developed by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). The drug’s intended effect is to repair brain cells, but it actually ends up causing hyperintelligence in apes, a trait passed on to Caesar.

Much of the film’s early section is its most affecting, where Caesar grows up with Rodman, Rodman’s Alzheimer’s afflicted father (John Lithgow), and his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto). Director Rupert Wyatt knows just which notes to hit in depicting Alzheimer’s, spelling out the devastation the disease causes its victims and their families, but keeps things from being too manipulative. Even more heartfelt is the relationship between Caesar and Rodman, as Rodman raises the animal as a son.

Once Caesar is stripped away and sent to a primate sanctuary run by John (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son (“Harry Potter’s” Tom Felton), the film shifts gears as Caesar learns some brutal lessons about nature and things begin heading toward their inevitable conclusion. Many of these scenes are entirely free of human characters, and it’s here that the film’s CGI work is truly the star.

Without overstating it, the effects in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” are insanely great. Entire characters are created by motion capture performances, and it’s fascinating to watch the handful of primate characters develop into intelligent killing machines.

As Caesar, Serkis continues to fill computer-generated characters with heart and soul, after previously playing Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” films and King in the 2005 remake. This is better work than either of those two films, an almost entirely non-verbal performance brought to life by Serkis and some truly astonishing effects work. Serkis always lets us know what Caesar is thinking entirely with his eyes and body language, be it the scared concern as Rodman’s father slips into the abyss of dementia or the pure joy when Rodman takes him into nature for the first time. It’s without a doubt one of the best performances of the year, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility for Serkis to start generating some genuine awards buzz for his work here.

It’s interesting how the film makes it for a human audience to root for the apes as they begin their climactic rampage. While entirely too many of this final scene’s money shots (and a bit too much of the film’s plot) have been given away in trailers, it’s still a thrilling, frightening climax filled with great moments for each of the apes we’ve gotten to know over the course of the film. The impressive large-scale destruction of the final moments doesn’t end quite as you’d expect, but the possibility for a sequel is set up by a darkly ironic mid-credits coda.

What really sets “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” apart from many other summer films is just how sincerely moving it is. From Rodman’s relationship with Caesar to the wrenching transformation we see our central ape undergo, the film never fails to move you, and even when the human characters become perfunctory and the apes take over, it’s easy to invest in everyone onscreen. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” went from an unwanted prequel to a film series dead in the water thanks to Tim Burton’s disastrous reboot, and became one of the most heartfelt, exciting experiences of the summer.

Printed on Monday, August 8th, 2011 as:'Apes' prequel shines among list of summer films