The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Rise of the Planet of the Apes

If you'd have told me back in May that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be one of the best movies of the summer, I'd have laughed. Forget the oddly low-key marketing campaign, the lackluster trailer, and the fact that it's yet another Hollywood reboot; this is the kind of entertainment that makes summer moviegoing special.

James Franco plays Will Rodman, a brilliant researcher working on a cure for Alzheimer's. When his test chimp dies, he secretly adopts her baby, which he names Caesar. The young chimp has genetically inherited some of the qualities provided by the drug, such as accelerated learning. As is often the case with cinematic scientists, Will decides to move on to human testing without permission. He begins administering the drug to his Alzheimer's-ridden father (John Lithgow), who immediately shows positive results. Coupled with the fact that he's dating a pretty primatologist named Caroline (Slumdog Millionaire's Freida Pinto), life suddenly seems pretty good. But then Caesar becomes agitated, goes on a mini-rampage, and is court-ordered to be placed in a containment facility for apes. The facility is run by John Landon (Brian Cox), who really couldn't care less about the treatment of the animals, and his son Dodge (Tom Felton), who actively torments them.

That's a thumbnail description of the story's first act – an act that is certainly enjoyable. The second act, though, is where Rise of the Planet of the Apes really kicks into gear. In all the previous incarnations of Apes, actors wearing heavy makeup portrayed the characters, giving them an odd appearance; they were more like human/ape hybrids than just apes. And that was fine, because it was appropriate to the concept those pictured worked from. Advances in CGI technology have allowed the makers of this movie to create realistic-looking apes, with actor Andy Sirkis doing the performance-capture work that guides the movements and facial expressions of Caesar. (He performed similar duties as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and the titular character in Peter Jackson's remake of King Kong.) The entire middle section is largely devoted to the apes, with Caesar initially getting victimized by the others in Landon's facility, and then gradually becoming a leader among them. There is no dialogue in these stretches, yet we are drawn in by the complex animal behavior. Given that the title is Rise of the Planet of the Apes, you have likely surmised that Caesar sees and experiences some things that alter his benevolent outlook. For reasons I won't divulge, he comes to see that – the affections of Will and Caroline aside – mankind is quite willing to exercise its natural dominance over the simian world. This leads to the film's third act, which is the revolt promised by the title.

For me, the best thing about any POTA movie is the examination of ape society. Even Tim Burton's love-it-or-hate-it remake from a decade ago spent time showing how the characters created and lived within their own hierarchy. We've seen that before, yet it feels completely fresh here because the outstanding digital effects make us feel like we are seeing real animals. Caesar is at first frightened by the other apes in captivity. His heightened intelligence allows him to find ways to survive, and even prosper in the environment, where some are prone to align with him and others prone to fight for dominance. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver is willing to take the time to show us how things develop, how Caesar goes from being a docile, affectionate creature to a warrior with great influence. Dian Fossey would have loved this movie.

As great as that stuff is, it is the last half-hour that will have most people pumped. Once the apes go on the warpath, the film turns into the best kind of action spectacle. The groundwork has been carefully laid (imagine that in a summer movie!) so that the eventual battle between man and simian has weight to it. Much of the climax takes place on the Golden Gate Bridge. Director Rupert Wyatt stages the sequence with inventive visual style, without ever sacrificing the story's themes. People at my screening were literally cheering and rooting because the movie builds so well to the grand finale, then gives you a tremendous payoff.

Franco, Pinto, Lithgow, Cox, and Felton are all very good in their roles. While there's no doubt that the humans are here to serve the story of the apes, they don't get swallowed up by the action the way characters often do in pictures like Transformers: Dark of the Moon. They serve the purpose of setting up all of the movie's best stuff. Human arrogance is one of the major ideas explored, as Caesar eventually realizes the true nature of his abilities and develops a moral perspective that motivates him to strike back at the people he believes are acting wrongly. The actors contribute to properly setting this sequence of events in motion for optimal impact.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes combines smart storytelling with groundbreaking effects to create an experience that is total fun from start to finish. It stands as proof that the best summer action movies give us a thrill, not just from the abundance of the mayhem, but from the ability to make us care why it's happening. Especially if you've been underwhelmed by many of summer 2011's “big” event movies, treat yourself to one that actually exceeds all expectations.

( 1/2 out of four)

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.