Movie Number 109
TitleRise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
Running Time– 105 minutes (“PG-13”)
Director– Rupert Wyatt
Writer– Rick Jaffa (screenplay), Amanda Silver (screenplay), and Pierre Boulle (novel)
Starring– James Franco, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, and Tom Felton

There are few things better than setting your expectations high, and being blown away. Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes does just that. Not only is it one of the best movies of this summer season, Rise takes my spot for favorite film of the year so far. It is a summer blockbuster with style, but more importantly, with a heart and soul. It tugs on your heartstrings, wows with incredible special effects work that was impossible just a decade ago, makes you laugh, while still creeping you out. Rise is must-see.

Rise is a remake/reboot, and a prequel all at once. Back in 1972, four years in to the original Apes craze, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes introduced us to an ape named Caesar. Though the circumstances are different, the character of Caesar has returned for Rise. The major connections between Rise and Conquest seem to end there.

In Rise, James Franco plays Will Rodman. Will works for a genetic therapy pharmaceutical company that uses apes to test drugs for Alzheimer’s treatment. One ape, nicknamed “Bright Eyes” – in a nod to the original Planet of the Apes film – manages to complete the Towers of Hanoi puzzle in 20 moves, just 5 shy of a perfect score of 15. Will and his boss, Steve Jacobs (David Oyelowo), believe they have discovered the cure for Alzheimer’s, and decide to present their findings to the board. All the sudden, Bright Eyes grows crazy, and breaks out of her cage, smashing through the office, and eventually being shot dead, thus killing Will’s testing.

We find out, however, that Bright Eyes was merely trying to protect her newborn baby, which Will takes home and names Caesar (Andy Serkis). Caesar quickly shows some of the effects from the drug that Will was feeding Bright Eyes, including incredible brainpower. As Caesar grows, so does his smarts, which may prove problematic to not only Will, but also the whole of humanity.

The first aspect of Rise that everyone will notice is the CGI work because all of the apes are done using this technique. A fellow film critic, Robert Saucedo, said in a Rise preview a few months back that the “world is ready for CGI apes”, and I wasn’t sure he was right until I was sitting in the theatre. The CGI starts out well, and then becomes some of best CGI work I’ve ever seen. There is no doubt that we are finally at the point where CGI can mimic real life so closely that one forgets they are watching computer generated images. This film wouldn’t have been possible before now. Andy Serkis’ facial expressions and body movements are eerily realistic, and that is a nod to both Serkis’ work, and that of the CGI team. The most incredible aspect of the CGI is that it manages to improve as the film progresses. When other apes are introduced, and those personalities come through, the CGI work is detailed enough to make each ape stand out. I can’t possibly give enough praise to this facet of the film, and from someone who generally dislikes CGI work, that is saying something.

James Franco takes a lot of flack, more so since he hosted the Academy Awards, which was admittedly painful to watch, but I still have a ton of respect for the man as a performer. Not only can he play the stoner character flawlessly (Pineapple Express), but he can also make a one-man film entertaining for 90 minutes (127 Hours). When I first found out he was playing Rodman in Rise, I was interested. To be honest, I wasn’t sure if I would buy him as a genetic researcher, and this was one of my biggest concerns coming in. This apprehension melted away merely minutes into the film. Franco is better than believable, and his work with John Lithgow and Andy Serkis is what makes the film for me. The first 45 minutes of Rise is used to set up the story and relationship between Will, Caesar, and Will’s ailing father, Charles (Lithgow). These three share an incredible chemistry, and I could have watched them for another 45 minutes before the apes take center stage. Lithgow, Serkis, and Franco make up one of the most unexpectedly charming – and unusual – families I’ve seen all year.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Tom Felton, in his first post-Harry Potter role, does a great job as the villain, Dodge Landon (whose name is another reference to the original Planet of the Apes). His character isn’t complex, but it doesn’t need to be: he’s there to antagonize, and he does just that. Brian Cox plays Dodge’s father, and the same can be said for him. Both do a nice job with what they’re given, even if they are one-dimensional characters.

If I had to find something negative to say about Rise, it would have to be that it ended so quickly. I would have loved this story – which is wonderfully engaging – to go on for another hour, making it a three-hour epic, and getting into what happens next. This is what the sequels are for, though. In terms of acting, Freida Pinto is underwhelming as Will’s love interest. She has little development, and does even less to progress the story. Her importance is minor, and it felt like some of her scenes may have been left on the cutting room floor.

With some of the best CGI work of the year, an awe-inducing, 43-year old story that still makes one think, and acting that makes the viewer care for almost every character in the film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a near shoo-in for a spot on my “Top 10 of 2011” list. This film is the perfect way to end a summer that has been filled with quality blockbusters. There’s nothing like saving the best for last, and Rise is as fulfilling as they come.