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'Rise of the Planet of the Apes' proves to be an unexpected surprise

Rise of the Planet of Apes

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"Rise of the Planet of the Apes” was a prequel no one that I knew of (including myself) was all that excited about seeing. The memories we have (or whatever's left of them) of Tim Burton's surprisingly bland and forgettable remake of "Planet of the Apes" made us not want to have those "damn dirty apes" putting their paws on us ever again. But this prequel proves to be a total surprise and an unexpected delight as it is intelligently written and features a number of interesting characters that many summer movies typically lack.

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20th Century Fox
Movie poster for 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'
Movie poster for 'Rise of the Planet of the Apes'
20th Century Fox

Actually, there is one real reason why "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is as good as it is: Andy Serkis. You may not know the face but you most certainly know the name. Serkis brought Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to life, and he inhabited the humongous ape that was in love with Naomi Watts in "King Kong." Serkis has also done a large number of live action roles, but these are the ones he is best known for. As Caesar, Serkis does an amazing job of creating a multi-dimensional creature that is endlessly fascinating to watch as his intelligence grows exponentially.

What happens is that scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a genetically engineered retrovirus which may cure Alzheimer's Disease (didn't I just tell you that?) just like Saffron Burrows' character in " Deep Blue Sea" had attempted. Will on the other hand is doing this because his dad Charles (the great John Lithgow) is in the grips of that dreaded disease, so his goal of getting to a cure is both personal and more dangerous as a result.

Rodman and his team succeed with one chimpanzee, Bright Eyes, who develops a strong level of human intelligence after being given the retrovirus. However, Bright Eyes ends up getting killed after going on a rampage in the laboratory which is immediately blamed on Will's experiment. It turns out though that Bright Eyes had given birth to a chimp, and both Will and fellow scientist Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) realize that the attack came about not because of the retrovirus, but because she was just trying to protect her baby. Since all the other chimps were euthanized after the attack, Robert asks Will to take care of the chimp until a more permanent home can be found. If the baby is discovered, she will be euthanized like the rest of the chimps were.

Now this is where the movie gets really interesting as we watch the baby chimp that Will names Caesar grow up rapidly and evolve at a rapid pace. The retrovirus ended up being passed on to him from his mother, so he is already imbued with human intelligence. Now I don't know if any experiment can make chimps or apes that smart as of yet, but considering that we came from them (don't believe otherwise), the concept behind the plot feels plausible since we know chimps can learn things like sign language (which Will teaches Caesar here), and that DNA in chimps and humans is exactly identical.

“Rise of the Planet of The Apes” came out around the same time that the documentary "Project Nim" was released, and that one focused on a chimp that was raised alongside a human family and learns American Sign Language. As a result, that Will brings Caesar into his home for him and his ailing father to watch over never feels far-fetched in the slightest.

Serkis is brilliant in making Caesar appear like a frightened child as he discovers the dangers of the outside world. This is not your typical monster movie where the humans fight animals out to destroy them because they are "evil." Caesar doesn't start out attacking humans as much as he defends the ones who he feels are being harmed. We feel for him as he gets exposed to a cold and hostile environment that treats him as inferior and brutalizes him out of sheer neglect and contempt. Watching Serkis transform Caesar from helpless victim to leader is mesmerizing, and he makes it to where we don't see him as an animal but as more human than the humans.

We've seen some movies recently where humans attack aliens or other species, be it “Cowboys & Aliens" or "Attack The Block," so it's kind of refreshing to see "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" bypass that formula to where the battle is more complex than it appears to be on the surface. These chimps weren't born evil, but they have evolved (take that Creationists!) to where they are no longer dependent on humans for their survival. You almost find yourself rooting for the apes as you can't blame them for wanting to get back at their captors. Then again, not all the humans in this movie are cruel to animals.

James Franco is as always excellent as scientist Will Rodman who is in the Frankenstein mold of trying to extend life even if it goes beyond scientific boundaries. Franco never makes Will out to be an obsessive genius with delusions of grandeur, but instead a regular guy doing what he feels is best. As he tries the retrovirus on other chimps and his father, even he comes to see that there are and should be limits to what science can do. Human life can only last for so long (darn it).

The movie, however, stumbles a little when it comes to other characters. Freida Pinto (“Slumdog Millionaire") plays Will's girlfriend Caroline Aranha, but she's not given much to do other than be his conscience. Brian Cox plays John Landon, manager of a primate facility who incarcerates Caesar when a court order takes him away from Will. Cox is great as always, but we don't see enough of him. Then there's Tom Felton who brings his Draco Malfoy act from “Harry Potter” to the States with an American accent as Landon's bully of a son Dodge. Felton's not bad here, but the character he plays is nothing more than a manipulative device to turn our sympathies towards Caesar which comes to feel unnecessary very quickly.

Directing "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is Rupert Wyatt who previously directed the British prison escape thriller "The Escapist." He shows a very assured and confident style here and is clearly interested in more than just simple escapist fun with this film. Wyatt ends up giving more attention to the characters to where they are the ones that drive the film. The special effects are great, but they're not the point. The complexities of the story make for a more emotionally involving cinematic experience than any "Transformers" movie could ever hope to be.

The story is a familiar one of man vs. science and of the moral implications that are heedlessly ignored in the pursuit of a greater good. We should despise Will for violating his own ethics which start off an evolution that soon leads to a revolution. But in the end, the movie implies that the destruction of the human race will not be from the apes but instead from our own willful ignorance. We should know better, and yet history keeps repeating itself.

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" proved to be one of summer 2011's best movies, and it makes me look forward to the sequel “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.” The downside is that Serkis still has yet to get an Oscar nomination for his work in movies like these. Regardless of how it may seem, the special effects did not do the acting for him. It could have just seemed like a simple setup for a franchise, but it feels very much like a full movie that doesn't exist solely for that purpose. It will appeal to a wide audience and not just those who are against animal testing.