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Rise of the Planet of the Apes

by on August 4, 2011
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What a jaw-dropper. We had to wait until the end of summer for the movie of the summer, and it came from a reboot of a moribund, cheesy film franchise that saw its heyday before the Bee Gees discovered bell bottoms.

I’ll admit, I went into “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” with fairly low expectations. Oh, let’s not kid around, I was quite sure this movie would suck a mighty wind. A prequel to “Planet of the Apes” set in modern times, with smartened-up chimps and gorillas depicted (mostly) through CGI?

And that title … yuck! They might as well have called it “Precursor of the Planet of the Apes.” (The movie poster tagline, which a colleague pointed out to me, is even worse: “It’s our world, but their planet.”)

The creative team’s credentials aren’t exactly promising, either: Director Rupert Wyatt’s previous two features are unknown to me, or most everyone. And screenwriting team Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver last enjoyed a script credit in 1997 (and for “The Relic,” which barely counts).

And yet Wyatt, Jaffa and Silver attack Pierre Boulle’s novel with straightforward flair and storytelling acumen, taking the concept to its logical conclusion — or, in this case, origin. It’s a smart, contemplative movie that seems bound neither by the conventions of the science fiction genre or action/adventure tropes.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” doesn’t get too bogged down in the minutia of the science — a brilliant young researcher, Will (James Franco), has developed a serum to cure Alzheimer’s, especially that of his father (John Lithgow). While testing it on chimpanzees, he discovers that it dramatically increases their intelligence.

After an unpleasant incident at the lab, the program is shut down by the money-grubbing administrator (David Oyelowo) — but not before Will sneaks out an infant chimp, whom he names Caesar. The years roll by, and soon Caesar has become a willful, juvenile ape who chafes at Will’s benevolent but omnipresent yoke.

Caesar is a wondrous creation of live shots of chimpanzees, puppetry and computer-generated animation. He’s a full-blooded creation, and by far the most relatable character in the film. It’s the greatest marriage of performance and CGI since Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy — which is no surprise seeing that Andy Serkis provided the motion-capture performance for both characters.

The movie really gets interesting when Caesar is separated from Will, Will’s father and girlfriend (Freida Pinto) and placed in a facility with dozens of regular chimps, gorillas and orangutans. The honcho of this ape prison (Brian Cox) isn’t really a sadist, but his son (Tom Felton) is, and seems to have the run of the place when the old man retires for the evening.

At first the ostracized outsider who gets pushed around by the local strongman … er, ape, Caesar uses his cunning to take control of the situation and (literally) stand up to the man.

Yes, the movie dallies long enough for a few lay-ups miming dialogue and scenarios from the original movies — e.g. Caesar’s mother is called “Bright Eyes,” the same moniker given to Charlton Heston (who pops up briefly himself) by his simian captors in the 1968 film. But these register as mini-homages rather than cheap in-jokes.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” emerges as the “District 9” of 2011 — a seemingly silly flick that turns out to have more brains and pluck than anything around. No monkey business: this is the best movie of the summer.

4.5 Yaps