'Apes' is summer fare to feel good about the next morning

August 15, 2011

Just like 2009's late-summer dark horse "District 9," "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has charged out of nowhere to earn one of the top slots for summer entertainment at the movies.

Of course, an August release date is not the only thing the two share. Both have close ties with director Peter Jackson - using his groundbreaking WETA motion-capture CGI. And "Apes" goes even further by enlisting the talents of Andy Serkis, who is no stranger to playing subhuman species. The actor was the backbone for both Gollum in "Lord of the Rings" and Kong in "King Kong." This means he spent the majority of the films walking around in a green unitard with ping-pong balls all over his body, only to be digitally replaced by the beasts you see on screen. His face may be absent, but his mark is indelible.

But let's get back to the monkey business. "Apes" is an origin story, laying out the genesis for the popular sci-fi franchise which envisioned a world overturned by primates. With "Rise of the..." we meet the Che Guevara (Chimp Guevara?) of the evolution revolution - Caesar. A genetically altered lab chimp, Caesar is the pet project of Will Rodman (played by James Franco), a scientist on the brink of finding a cure for Alzheimer's. Will has a vested interest in the drug, as his father (played by John Lithgow) has fallen victim to it and is slowly slipping away.

We witness little Caesar growing from cuddly rascal to an older, wiser simian who struggles to find his place in Will's life - adopted child? Pet? Experiment? When an incident tears Caesar and Will apart, we are simultaneously frightened for and frightened of the chimpanzee. His placement in a local primate shelter is the stage for him to demonstrate his mind as well as his might, manipulating the other animals like chess pieces and positioning himself for checkmate.

There are few wasted moments in "Rise," a film that thunders with momentum toward a chest-thumping climax on the Golden Gate Bridge. The human characters are a bit more than just cruel, needle-poking meanies. In fact, in another, more "prestigious" film, Lithgow might earn buzz for his tender portrayal of a man clinging to mental stability.

But the film belongs to Caesar, and therefore, Serkis. He infuses the ape with emotion, from tenderness and fear early on to raw, calculating aggression later. He is a complex "hero" (as the best often are), and even though the character is animated, he's a far cry from Curious George.

From the lush photography to the delicate story flourishes, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is the kind of summer fare you can feel good about the following morning. Like its primate lead, it has just as much brain as it does brawn.