I'll be the first to admit; I was not looking forward to seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It seemed like the definition of pointless. Can't Hollywood ever just let a good thing rest? But the fact is I am a big fan of the series. Yes, I even loved the 2001 Tim Burton remake. I still think that movie was great.
But Luckily, I get to admit that I was wrong. Rise of the Planet of the Ape, directed by Rupert Wyatt, is a roller coaster ride of a movie. Is it a reboot, a prequel? Who cares? The movie is being advertised as a prequel but that only makes sense if you ignore the original's sequels; Escape from Planet of the Apes and Conquest of the Planet of the Apes both covered a lot of the same ground as Rises. But the fact is; it doesn't matter. This movie is awesome, stands on its own and for once, the possibility of a sequel doesn't feel like a threat.
As it is often the case, the story begins with the good intentions of a well-meaning scientist. When will they learn? (the road to hell is paved with good intentions right?) Will Rodman (James Franco) is a San Francisco scientist searching for the cure for Alzheimer's. His father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease so Will sees it as justification to testing on apes. Unfortunately, as is usually the case, things go wrong and Will and his team are forced to put down all of the apes that have been experimented on. But a lone baby ape named Caesar is saved and Will takes him home.
This is where the movie really gets interesting. To say that Caesar is the star of the show is a titanic of an understatement. Caesar makes the movie come alive and allows you to overlook the wooden performances by almost all of the human actors. Aside from a couple of touching moments by Will's dad, it seems like everyone is sleepwalking through their roles. I didn't think it was possible but Franco is even more boring than he was when hosted the Oscars.
But that's not really fair because to be honest, the movie doesn't really give the actors a lot to do. It's Caesar's world, everyone else is just living in it. To watch Andy Serkis bring Caesar to life is a true wonder of modern cinema. All of those naysayers who claim technology is taking the soul out of filmmaking might have to rethink their stance. Serkis gives an incredibly nuanced performance that captures Caesar as a precocious child, troubled teen and eventually the leader of the apes.
The performance-capture technology that brings the apes — chimps, orangutans and gorillas—to life is really amazing and it makes it impossible not to be enveloped in the action. Serkis has brought similar magic to his roles as Gollum in Lord of the Rings and as King Kong and if there is any justice in the world, his performance as Caesar should finally get him some Oscar recognition.
But Caesar doesn't just drive the action of the movie; he is also the heart of it. In one scene, after seeing a dog on a leash, Caesar asks Will, using sign language, if he's a pet. This is just one of the many moving scenes in the movie and proof that technology doesn't have to rob the heart of movies. There is more emotion on Caesar's face than many of the so-called real actors working today.
One of the inherent problems of a prequel is that we all know how it's going to end but that doesn't take the joy out seeing Rise of the Planet of the Apes unfold. Watching Caesar plan the getaway with his fellow primates by teaching them sign language and the climactic showdown at the golden gate bridge are as thrilling as it gets.
In a summer filled with predictable movie fare, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a rare surprise that leaves you wanting more.