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‘Apes’ a worthwhile franchise resurrection

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, August 12, 2011 8:18 am

Summer is winding down, and I find myself unburdened by the bitter cynicism that typically plagues me this time of year. It’s a pretty good time to be a moviegoer, relatively speaking, as it’s rare thing indeed to look at a multiplex marquee and actually find a handful of films that are worth seeing (“The Smurfs,” of course, notwithstanding).

This week we’ll look at another strong late-summer release, and slated for next week is “30 Minutes Or Less.” It should be good for a laugh or two, provided you can come to terms with the fact that it was apparently inspired by a horrific true-crime case that resulted in a mentally challenged man getting his head blown off by an exploding neck collar. I guess anything can be comedic fodder these days ...

I’ve always fancied that, given the opportunity, I would make a pretty good studio exec. However, the success of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” makes me question my gut instincts. On general principle, there’s no way I would have green-lit the resurrection of a sub-par franchise from the ‘60s that had its shot at a rebound 10 years ago and failed miserably, especially when it includes two uses of “of the” in the title.

Six weeks ago I had this pegged as one of the sure-fire misses of the summer movie season, so imagine my surprise to find that, instead of a crass, naïve attempt at a reboot cash-in, it is in fact a carefully constructed, character-driven marvel of tight, no-frills storytelling. If I looked out my window right now to find a hoard of angry, marauding apes headed my way, I would not be any more shocked than I am right now.

More morality play than typical summer blockbuster, this “Planet of the Apes” envisions a not-too-distant future in which human greed and arrogance lays the groundwork for the primate-run society first seen in the 1968 film with Charlton Heston.

Our primary human protagonist is medical researcher Will Rodman (James Franco, looking way too spaced out to be believable as an M.D.), an altruistic lad who is working tirelessly to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, the disease that is slowing destroying his father (John Lithgow). After a lab mishap involving an aggressive ape leaves him without a prime test subject for his regenerative “cure,” Will secretly takes home that ape’s offspring, named Caesar (played by Andy Serkis, king of the blue-screen), to conduct private research.

Over the course of eight years, Will and Caesar develop a bond that tows the uncomfortable line between father/son and master/pet. But it eventually becomes clear that, despite his hyper-intelligence and general good nature, the now-grown Caesar will never be able to co-exist in human society. He is sent to live in a common monkeyhouse, lorded over by cruel and/or inept overseers whose torments help foster in Caesar a sense of revolution. After gaining the trust of his fellow prisoners, Caesar acts decisively to free himself from bondage, stealing Will’s supply of smart-gas and using it to assemble a small army of very strong, very intelligent and very pissed-off apes itching for some payback.

Viewers expecting an action flick will be disappointed. Most of the crazy monkey action is confined to the final 30 minutes, in which Caesar and his comrades declare war on mankind atop the Golden Gate Bridge. The action, when it comes, is incredible — visceral, engaging, and wrought with political subtext. But the film’s chief pleasures lie in story structure and character development.

The film is divided into distinct three acts, and the most interesting is actually the second segment, in which Caesar is thrust into a prison environment and comes to embrace his true revolutionary nature. This part of the film plays out like a great, old-school prison-break flick, complete with effective archetypal personalities assigned to the key primates. This is also where the film makes the most of its political agenda, crafting a compelling and persuasive moral view that can only be described as anti-human.

The human cast is serviceable, even if it seems at times that Franco was cast as part of some elaborate inside joke that you were left out of. Lithgow is his usual awesome self, and lends some real humanity to the sequences involving Caesar’s mostly tranquil “home” life. But the films rises or falls on the strength of Serkis’ performance. The entire point of the film hinges on Caesar’s own unlikely humanity, and without an actor so adept at working behind layers of computer-generated effects, there’s simply no way any of this would have worked.

Serkis (who previously portrayed an ape to great effect in Peter Jackson’s “King Kong” remake, and should have won an Oscar for his role as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” series) is a wonder to behold, even beyond the impressive FX that bring him to life as the endlessly expressive Caesar. He’s also a hero you can get behind on both a philosophical and personal level, making this character a very promising subject for the chain of sequels that will inevitably come.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 for violence and profanity.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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