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Rise of the
Planet of the
Apes

It's a nice surprise when a summer blockbuster hooks you in with a small compelling human drama. Even more of a surprise would be when that human drama is about an ape.

But Rise of the Planet of the Apes achieves just that. From the commercials you'd imagine it's about us fighting off an incursion of super-intelligent chimpanzees, but that's just the inevitable outcome of the title. Instead, Director Rupert Wyatt spends at least the first half of the film focusing on fathers and sons and the consequences of that filial bond.

A sort of reimagining of Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Rise begins in a lab in San Francisco. Bland but sincere geneticist Will Rodman (James Franco) struggles to find a viral cure for Alzheimer's, testing his serum on chimpanzees. When his star pupil, nicknamed "Bright Eyes," goes on a rampage thinking that the scientists are coming for her newborn child, Will sneaks the baby chimp home to raise it on his own.

He has the extra hope that the chimp might somehow provide stimulation for his own father, Charles (John Lithgow). A former music teacher, Charles is none too slowly succumbing to Alzheimer's, giving Will a very personal (if cinematically obvious) reason to find a treatment.

Of course, his "112" does work, passed on in the womb to the baby chimp. The babe, now named Caesar by Charles, has the same "bright eyes" as his mother and an astonishing ability to learn. Thus the human trial on Charles begins, and where Rise of the Planet of the Apes veers into affecting territory.

Andy Serkis gets only seventh billing in the credits in the real leading role. Forget that he's wearing a motion capture suit and digitally altered to play Caesar from infancy forward; for most of the film, you can believe he's real, and that Caesar has developed real emotional attachments.

It's a performance that works in both halves – the family drama and inevitably, the prison breakout when Caesar gets remanded to a primate sanctuary, tormented by a callow guard played by Tom Felton in the American (and obviously less intelligent) version of Draco Malfoy.

Even as that part of the story gets you caught up, it pretty much goes where expected, but still anchored by Serkis' strong performance. For all its entertainment value, the script does keep throwing in clichés that keep it from rising to the level of a powerful film.

You need a love interest? Freida Pinto shows up as a veterinarian from the San Francisco Zoo who spends years falling in love with Franco (mostly off-screen – the movie knows where our interests really lie) but never questions how Caesar could be so insanely intelligent. (Again, that revelation works because of Serkis.)

Back at Gen-Sys, the experiments start up again, introducing a clearly meant to be evil chimpanzee, the dark side of Caesar. The movie doesn't really need this particular antagonist, and at some point Wyatt must have figured that, too, but for some reason stuck with the character.

In general, it has to play by the numbers, because even if this doesn't provide a jumpstart to the long-dormant franchise, we know that ultimately we're heading for a Planet of the Apes. Wyatt keeps anchoring it in emotion, and Caesar's rise isn't as melodramatic as it could have been.

Nominally the star, Franco plays sincerely but doesn't necessarily lend any weight to the role. He looks better by being surrounded by actors who do lend him energy, such as Lithgow and for too brief a time Tyler Labine.

Lithgow truly connects with Serkis, allowing for Wyatt to create at least one classic affecting moment as both Charles and Caesar realize the different directions their brains are headed and quietly, subtly grieve. It's a scene that will stick for different reasons than all Charlton Heston's bellowed lines from the original film.

Wyatt does pay homage to the original with more than just the "Bright Eyes" reference. He's thrown in plenty of Easter Eggs without it becoming too clever for its own sake. Maybe he had to by fiat from above; at times Rise does seem like two different sensibilities clashing.

The result still works, entertaining and surprisingly affecting. Whether we come around to another full-blown Planet of the Apes remains to be seen, but with Serkis taking over for Roddy McDowall, it could be just as fun.

Derek McCaw

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