Rise of the Planet of the Apes is, in my opinion, the best film the series has seen since the very original. It’s closest competition for that title is Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the original fourth movie, and the one that this new film is sort of a loose remake of. Am I confusing you yet?

On the surface, this new Planet of the Apes doesn’t really look like it belongs with the classic series – gone are the men wearing ape suits, for one, replaced by cutting-edge motion capture and CGI work. That may bother some fans, but hey, it’s a movie of its time, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t capitalize on the technology now offered. Besides, Tim Burton used men in suits for HIS Planet of the Apes movie, and we all remember how that worked out.

What this movie DOES have in common with the original series is a surprisingly intelligent and exciting story for a movie about smart apes overtaking humanity. It sounds like the recipe for a SyFy Channel Original Movie, but is here presented earnestly and very smartly. It’s the classic cautionary tale of mankind trying to play god and dooming itself in the process. In this case, James Franco plays a brilliant young scientist working on a cure for Alzheimer’s, and testing his new wonder drug on chimpanzees. The drug works, perhaps too well, particularly on one young chimp whom Franco “adopts” and names Caesar. Caesar’s intelligence rivals that of a person, but he is also still an out-of-his element animal, and when an unfortunate incident lands him in a simian sanctuary, he soon plots how not only to escape his new home, but also how to expose his fellow apes to the same sort of intelligence granted him, therefore allowing them to rebel against the humans who have captured and tormented them.

The movie wisely never goes for camp, instead playing everything with a straight face and a surprising level of pathos. Most likely, you’ll end up siding with the apes, if only because the human characters are all either stereotypically evil (like Harry Potter‘s Tom Felton, here trying way too hard to be a bad-ass as an abusive ape handler) or kind of boring (like Franco, who is OK in the movie, but whose character never holds our interest the way a main character should). The one exception is Franco’s Alzheimer inflicted father, played by John Lithgow, giving the film’s best “human” performance.

So if I’m saying the majority of the human characters are forgettable, why am I recommending the movie? It’s those damn, dirty apes. This is their movie, and they’re awesome. Motion capture king Andy Serkis once again does amazing work here – his Caesar is easily one of the year’s most compelling characters…heck, maybe one of the most compelling characters in sci-fi history. A lot of the other featured apes are memorable, as well, and it’s a sign of director Rupert Wyatt’s skills that he has you invested so much in these apes by the end of the film that you find yourself rooting for them even though you know you are witnessing the beginning of the end for the human race.

Though not necessarily in the same continuity as the original films, there are still a lot of nice little touches thrown in to pay tribute to those movies and reward their fans (keep an eye out during the bridge sequence for a couple apes wearing the orange jumpsuits from Conquest), which I always like to see in a remake. Though I was at first bothered by the idea that this movie wasn’t tying directly into the others, I now find myself legitimately excited to see where this new version of the series will go, and hope the same core group of filmmakers stay involved. We’ve seen the apes rise, now let’s see the actual war. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of my favorite movies of the year so far, and I definitely recommend it to fans of the original series desperate to wash the taste of Burton’s misfire out of their mouths.

 

 

This review was originally posted at Trevor Likes Movies on August 12th, 2011.

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