The summer movie season of 2011 might be remembered more for its highly anticipated releases that crashed and burned (The Hangover II; The Green Lantern). However, there were some rather unexpected successes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes among them.
The plot is simple but effective: a scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco), driven to find a cure for Alzheimer's disease (there is a personal motivation here, as the dread disease has claimed his father), is experimenting on chimpanzees with a potential breakthrough drug.
Initially, the drug seems to work, as one female chimp shows remarkably enhanced intelligence. However, before the drug can be presented to a board of directors, the chimp in question goes berserk, leading to the termination of the project-and the euthanization of all the test subjects.
However, Rodman is unable to euthanize a baby chimp named Caesar. Instead, he takes Caesar home. He soon discovers that Caesar, genetically enhanced from the drugs given his mother, has a remarkable, nearly frightening level of intelligence.
An unfortunate incident leads to Caesar being taken from the humans who care for him. How this incident culminates in Caesar leading fellow primates in an uprising against their captors (and humans in general) I will not spoil for the reader, as this film is worth seeing.
Not all aspects of the film work. A few shots are rather bad CGI. Furthermore, Franco and Freida Pinto as Rodman's supposed love interest (the film never really bothers to establish their relationship) are not particularly engaging.
The film has one remarkable asset going for it, and its makers wisely make it the core of the film: Andy Serkis's performance as Caesar. His performance, along with his brilliant work as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and as King Kong, confirms that Serkis is the greatest CGI performer in movies today.
His performance as Caesar is clearly the best performance in the film (the only other one close to it is the reliable John Lithgow's touching performance as Rodman's Alzheimer's-stricken father). The facial expressions and body movement he gives Caesar are both subtle yet apparent, and he succeeds in making Caesar both fearsome and heroic. There is talk that Serkis might be nominated for best supporting actor. If so, he deserves it.
While not a great film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a good film worth seeing. It wisely builds on its central performance, is not overlong, and features an exciting finale. It clearly leaves the door open for a sequel, and I hope one is made.
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