Two lingering questions can be answered right now: the first, “What will win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects?” and the other, “What was the best blockbuster in the summer of 2011?” Both have the same answer: Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Neither race is particularly close. The effects in Apes render the uncanny valley extinct. The movie’s hero, Caesar (and yes, spoiler alert, the apes are totally the good guys in this picture) has emotions, real and powerful ones, genuinely looks like he’s thinking when we watch him think. The collaboration between FX house Weta Digital and actor Andy Serkis has produced one of the best performances of the year and seats Caesar firmly at the head of the table in the Hall of Badass. And you’d best believe he gets the big banana. Caesar not only comes alive, he does so vividly, more vitally alive than most human performers in cinema. Ever.
[Read more. Spoilers ahead]
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (minor aside, I’d like to see each sequel to this “reboot” add an extra word to the title so that in a few years we’re on Revenge of the Return of the Recrudescence of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes) begins among the humans, with scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) testing a radical new Alzheimer’s drug on lab chimps. He finds one chimp, a female he names Bright Eyes (due to the flecks of green in her irises from the effects of the drug), gaining intelligence at an amazing rate. Will gets excited and is in the middle of reporting his revolutionary findings when Bright Eyes goes on a rampage and wrecks the lab and just about everything in sight. After James Franco’s money man boss Jacobs (David Oyelowo) terminates Will’s research and, villainously, all the chimps except for Bright Eyes’ newborn son, Will takes the baby ape home with him to raise as an uneasy mix between pet and adopted son.
We see that the motivation behind Will’s research is his live-in, Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (John Lithgow), whose love of Shakespeare leads to the young chimp being named Caesar. They soon discover that Caesar has inherited his mother’s intelligence and then some. Rather than get alarmed by the fact that his drug apparently altered its test subject’s genetic code to the point where the intelligence she gained could be passed down to her offspring, Will goes right ahead and gives his pops the Alzheimer’s drug. Could this action, like the decision to raise a rapidly growing, super-intelligent chimpanzee in his home, have consequences? Of course not. Why would you ever think such a — oh, right, this movie has “planet of the apes” in the title. I see where you were going with that one.
Since it’s the title of the movie, it’s not a spoiler that the apes rise and their takeover of Earth is a fait accompli. The movie wouldn’t be much of a movie if that was all there was to it, just as it wouldn’t be much of a movie if it didn’t feature a whole bunch of awesome scenes of people getting wrecked by apes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes us genuinely care about the ape protagonists while simultaneously not having all the people be evil straw men; James Franco turns in a not-half-bad performance as the most sympathetic human; he’s not a bad guy, just a guy who overreached what he should do with what he could, scientifically. As a rule though, the more skeptical or villainous the human character, the thinner the characterization. Not all the actors can quite handle that — Freida Pinto struggles a bit as James Franco’s girlfriend — but old pros like John Lithgow and Brian Cox (the warden of what’s basically ape jail) are up to the task. Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton does a nice job — and American accent — in his first post-Potter role as Brian Cox’s slacker sadist son, who makes the deadly mistake of antagonizing Caesar.
Which brings us to the whole point of this enterprise, the apes. The movie is most alive when we’re with Caesar, whose scenes feature some truly wonderful filmmaking. Director Rupert Wyatt is a name to watch. He collaborates with cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (who shot the Lord of the Rings movies, which didn’t look half bad their own selves) on some jawdropping long takes of Caesar climbing and swinging on stuff. The action climax, when the apes activate full-on La Resistance mode and go in armed with nothing but righteousness against cops with helicopters and machine guns, is one of the finest in recent memory (sorry about the spoiler, but knowing it’s coming will not in any way ruin how great it is when Caesar leads the charge out of the fog on the Golden Gate Bridge on a stolen police horse, screaming his head off. Yeah, that’s right, Caesar rides into battle on a horse and it’s completely believable.) Oh, and the gorilla hulking out and taking on the helicopter with his bare hands is the coolest thing in the history of ever; the trailer cuts out the whole last 85% of that sequence. When the apes write their military history books, there are going to be like twelve chapters in each one about how awesome that gorilla was.
Don’t let any potentially lukewarm feelings about the trailers fool you, and for the love of God purge your memories of that stupid 2001 Planet of the Apes movie. This right here is a whole new breed. This right here is about as good as summer blockbusters get. This right here will leave you in awe of its protagonist, awesome in the old-fashioned, profound sense of the word. Hail Caesar.