Being an animal lover, the concept behind the PLANET OF THE APES series has always held a certain attraction for me. The idea of a world where apes rule and humans are relegated to being slaves serves as a sort of vindication toward the abuses we inflict upon animals. The original PLANET OF THE APES was more an indictment of mankind’s generally destructive tendencies (this was the 60’s, after all) whereas this latest apes film, THE RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES (‘RISE’), directly attacks mankind’s abuse of animals. So far this summer, there hasn’t been a film that has surprised audiences at the box office (unlike last year when we had INCEPTION and the year before when we had DISTRICT 9), but I suppose RISE is quickly becoming that film. After Tim Burton’s disastrous attempt to reboot 20th Century Fox’s franchise with Marky Mark in 2001, any interest in taking another stab at PLANET OF THE APES was wisely ignored by Fox until some time could pass for the stench of Burton’s remake to clear the collective mind of American audiences. Enter 2011 and word travels through the geek grapevine that Fox is ready to unleash not a remake of its classic film, but rather a prequel that takes us back to the very beginning of how the apes came to take over the world. With an August release date (a month normally reserved for the studio’s weaker summer fare) and a director (Rupert Wyatt) whose only other film was the little-seen and little-known THE ESCAPIST (2008), there wasn’t a whole lot of confidence riding on the possibility of success for RISE. Suffice it to say that RISE has surprised the hell out of critics, studios, and audiences as arguably the best film of the summer of 2011.

RISE stars James Franco, who plays a scientist who is looking to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, which his father (John Lithgow) suffers from. Franco has come up with an experimental drug for the disease and he uses it on captive chimps in the laboratory he works at. However, after an accident involving an escaped chimp, Franco’s experiment is shut down for good, but not before he rescues the escaped chimp’s baby and brings it home. Franco adopts the baby chimp and names him Caesar (Andy Serkis). Caesar has inherited his mother’s high intelligence, which was the result of injections from Franco’s experimental drug. Realizing the positive effects the drug has had on Caesar, Franco also injects his father with the ailing drug, which causes his Alzheimer’s to miraculously go away. Unfortunately, the drug wears off his father and his Alzheimer’s symptoms begin to return. During one particular episode, the father gets into an altercation with a neighbor and Caesar comes to his rescue. However, Caesar’s violent reaction causes the chimp to be taken away by Animal Rescue and caged up in a shelter that’s run by Brian Cox. At the shelter, Caesar is finally introduced to other primates and he learns to identify himself as one of them. He also learns the benefit of organizing the primates and resisting their human captors…which is very bad for us.

The plot of RISE isn’t original, but it’s tight and well executed. The film moves at a nice, brisk pace that doesn’t slow or get bogged down by boring, expository scenes. Although the plot isn’t original, at the same time it serves as the perfect origin story for how it all happened. Drug experimentations on monkeys and the abuses they endure by their human captors is the sort of catalyst that would first come to mind if anyone tried to brainstorm an origin story. On the other hand, it remains an interesting enough premise to use and, most importantly, the filmmakers make good use of it through their execution of the story.

The story wisely places the focus on Caesar, the chimp with the higher intelligence and who ultimately organizes all the other monkeys to rise up against the humans. PLANET OF THE APES is about the monkeys and how they come to rule their society. Therefore, its important that RISE focuses on how Caesar plants the seeds of that future society. The film has a subplot concerning James Franco’s search for a cure for Alzheimer’s and his attempt to cure his father, but it’s a short subplot that mostly serves to support the main plot revolving around Caesar. A second subplot that is barely existent is about the romantic relationship between Franco and Freida Pinto (Latika from SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE). The romantic relationship absolutely does nothing to move the story forward and I don’t know why the hell the filmmakers decided to even include it. I imagine its because they felt compelled to have a romance, which is fine if that contributes to the main character’s arc. However, it doesn’t and Freida Pinto’s appearance in the film is completely wasted. However, again, the filmmakers wisely limited the amount of time spent on these subplots to focus mostly on Caesar’s story.

Its interesting that the upward trajectory of James Franco’s career over the past few years is completely irrelevant in RISE. This movie is all about Andy Serkis’ phenomenal performance as Caesar. For those of you who don’t know Serkis, he also gave life to THE LORD OF THE RINGS’ Gollum. Unfortunately, the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences is probably too short-sighted to recognize the talent and skills Serkis contributes to these digital characters, but hopefully, he will be recognized by the Academy for his work in this film or for a future project. Caesar’s story is highly engaging, partly because we get to witness how the chimp develops his intelligence and gains enough smarts to realize that he is equal to humans. In a strange application of Joseph Campbell’s hero myth, Caesar’s story is the hero’s journey from ordinary to extraordinary. He eventually transforms into the leader of the primates. I say this is a strange application of the hero myth because Caesar is our hero even though he will lead the primates against humankind and, in time, the primates will enslave all humans.

Other than the main conflict between Caesar and the rest of the humans, the other conflicts presented in RISE are clichéd, but thankfully do not detract too much from enjoyment of the story. The first conflict is between James Franco and the head of the laboratory, who is played by David Oyelowo. Oyelowo plays a greedy businessman whose only goal in running the laboratory is to find the elusive cure for Alzheimer’s that Franco promises so that he can make a lot of money. There isn’t any subtlety to the actor’s portrayal of the character and his portrayal is reminiscent of THE SIMPSONS’ Mr. Burns. The other conflict that also fails to work is the one between Caesar and the head of the animal shelter and his employees. For one, the employees of the shelter, with the exception of Brian Cox, are horrible actors who also play one-note stereotypically evil guys who like to abuse the monkeys for no reason. Worse, the filmmakers decided to have the worst actor (Tom Felton, who also plays Draco Malfoy in the HARRY POTTER films) in the entire film say the famous line uttered by Charlton Heston (“Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”).

Another issue I had with RISE was the bad dialogue spoken by the actors. Luckily most of the film’s cast is pretty talented and they make the most of the clichéd dialogue. The dialogue isn’t bad enough to make you cringe, but its clearly obvious from the beginning that dialogue writing is not the screenwriter’s strong suit. Again, the weak dialogue is compensated by the engaging narrative.

I described how great Andy Serkis is as Caesar, but without the amazing work done by Peter Jackson’s WETA, none of this would have been possible (well actually it would have as the work would probably have been done by a different effects house like ILM). The monkeys are absolutely lifelike and never once are you taken out of the reality they create due to flaws in their design. The ape effects in RISE are easily the best digital work I have seen so far this year (although someone needs to explain to me how the monkeys seemed to multiply by a lot toward the climax). Caesar is beautifully designed and humanistic aspects are integrated into his look to make him look more human, especially in his eyes. WETA’s success in maintaining the realism of these animals makes the surprise ending of the film all the more astonishing (evidenced by the huge gasp from the audience).

RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a great summer popcorn movie that I highly recommend you see on the big screen. It doesn’t dumb itself down for the audience and it doesn’t try to compensate for a weak story by bombarding you with digital effects. RISE aims to entertain its audience and it does so successfully (it also doesn’t hurt that the film is set entirely in the San Francisco Bay Area so that’s clearly a bonus).