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Ten Word or Less Review: Go Ape!

With little fanfare and amazingly low expectations, Fox has dusted off its dormant Planet of the Apes franchise.  Off the radar since the 70’s, Fox tried to bring its simian populated movie series back to audiences in 2001.  The result was a ridiculous Tim Burton exercise which featured amazing makeup but a senseless and idiotic story.  Though it ensnared a wide audience it was considered fairly awful my most and Fox pursued no follow up.  Cut to a decade later and the apes are back.  Fox has quietly, too quietly perhaps, let newish director Rupert Wyatt craft a new Apes origin story which contains no direct connection to the existing Ape mythology.  In short, it’s a reboot a la Batman Begins or 2009’s Star Trek.  As this feature subtly made its way through production and to the screen, little was said in its favor and most assumed it was a tossed together experience simply meant to keep an old franchise from fading away forever.  Previews sold it like an ape infested retread of Will Smith’s silly I Robot.  Toss assumptions aside.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the finest event film of the summer and contains one of the best digital performances crafted for film to date.  In a summer which has seen scores of disappoints and one charmless reel of digital mayhem after another, Apes delivers a movie experience only Harry Potter and X-Men: First Class have come close to equaling in big budget quality.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins in a world very much populated by humans.  Will (James Franco) is a scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, hisown father a victim of the mind destroying illness.  Testing his serums on apes, Will thinks he’s cracked the code for curing the destructive disease.  Everything goes wrong when his prized chimp turns hostile and is killed protecting its infant.  Will begrudgingly takes the baby ape home to live with his Alzheimer’s stricken father.  He raises the ape and quickly discerns that the brain power accelerating formula given to his mother has been passed on to son.  Named Cesar, this miraculous chimp displays amazing intelligence and ability that matches, and then surpasses, humans of an equivalent age.  But before any miracles are announced to the world the situation goes bad and Cesar finds himself confined to an ape house.  It’s here his quest for freedom begins and his role as leader of an ape uprising is born.

The blending of technology and human performances is allowing fantasy and science fiction to push and expand into more and more interesting places and situations.  With attempts to place CGI creations over human performers now out of its first decade, culminating with the successful emoting of Avatar’s characters, the ability to capture genuine human emotion is no longer out of reach.  While the make-up effects of Burton’s film were a high water mark for the art form, here they aren’t missed.  Cesar is a marvel of expression, emotion and pathos.  Performed by Andy Serkis of Gollum fame, Serkis has given Cesar a soul full of conflict and wonder behind a pair of deep green eyes.  This CGI creation is the central character and convincingly anchors the story with what is basically a riveting silent performance.  Cesar’s human counterparts, James Franco, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, are all fine supporting players but their parts are various levels of filler.  Franco wrings what he can out of a basic, damned through good intentions scientist role but it’s not his movie.  Franco and company do their part to move the story along and they do it well, but this is Cesar’s story and the technology elevates the character, and thus the movie, to surprising levels.

Director Rupert Wyatt proves infinitely more adept at pacing, directing actors and crafting action than his small resume implies.  Wyatt and his writers don’t build Rise as any kind of standard action vehicle.  Instead they’ve taken the high road and constructed a sturdy science fiction genre movie around a story of personal discovery.  It’s a journey from infancy through adolescence, culminating in rebellion and the demand for freedom from oppression.  Wyatt and company pull off this ambitious story arc without many hiccups or ill fitting story beats.  The movie does have a strangely barren San Francisco during its climax.  And as this is a Planet of the Apes movie fans of the series will find nods to past adventures scattered throughout.  Heston’s classic demand to be unhanded by his ape oppressors is turned on its head here, resulting in the fiercest, most punctuated line of dialogue of any movie in recent memory.  And it’s only one word long.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes begins the gradual wind down of our annual summer slog of CGI overkill in a grand way.  After enduring computer created robots, pandas, even Smurfs, Hollywood saved it’s most engrossing creation for last.  After Burton’s bloated misfire Ape fans finally have something to cheer about.  This is a great beginning to a rediscovered property that will hopefully yield exciting results in the future.

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