‘Apes’ prequel an extremely human movie

When one goes to a movie that is not only easily identified by its predecessor title (in this case “Planet of the Apes”), but is also billed as a summer action blockbuster, they might expect the kind of mindless sci-fi thriller that was churned out a decade ago in the re-make of, “Planet of the Apes,” starring Mark Whalburg. Roughly fifteen minutes into the movie, a person with such expectations will begin to realize that “Rise” is of a completely different breed.

While the 2001 movie re-imagined the franchise, it never took, and was generally panned by audiences and critics alike. Due to that poor performance, no subsequent sequels were made, and the “Planet of the Apes” franchise was essentially shelved. With “Rise,” the franchise may yet see a new period of prosperity. “Rise” is actually a prequel to the Charlton Heston original “Planet of the Apes,” and serves to explain the events leading up to the global primate take-over, while completely ignoring the 2001 version and its non-canonical “re-telling” of events.

The movie is set in generally present-day San Francisco, and begins with scientist Will Rodman (James Franco, “127 Hours”) testing experimental medicine on laboratory apes in hopes of curing Alzheimer’s, a disease currently worsening in his aging father, Charles (John Lithgow, “Leap Year”).

The drug seems to be successful on one chimp, but at a board meeting promoting the drug to investors, the intelligent chimp is gunned down as it goes on a rampage, effectively destroying all hope of the drug being approved for human testing. Later, Will discovers that the chimp was not actually on a rampage, and was in fact only trying to protect the child she had delivered secretly in her cell. The other ape handler, unable to bring himself to euthanize the infant ape, puts the choice literally in the hands of Will, who decides to take the chimp home and raise it himself.

This essentially sets up the first segment of the movie, which jumps forward several years as the baby ape, named Caesar (after Charles’ favorite Shakespearian play), grows into adulthood. The extremely touching rearing of the ape might as well be that of raising a human child, and perhaps is made more touching by the species barrier. The effect is subsequently highlighted by the performance of motion capture veteran Andy Serkis, better known for his role as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, who portrays Caesar underneath a beautifully-rendered CGI ape costume.

The growing pains of raising a full sized chimp in a residential neighborhood prove to be too difficult for the family, and after the police are called on an incident, Will is forced by court order to relinquish Caesar to an ape sanctuary. The term is fairly loosely used, however, as it is more of a prison. The ape-human interactions at the sanctuary reveal an important lesson about what “humanity” means, with the apes possessing more genuine humanity than the humans around them, they enter the hearts of the audience with ease.

Caesar is definitely at the forefront of this, as his roller coaster experience at the sanctuary tugs at heartstrings with every step, finally culminating in a powerful moment of defiance that will have viewers holding their breath.

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The film would simply not have been possible ten years ago. With such a CGI-dependent script, if the technology did not follow, the performance of the apes would likely land in the deep end of the “Uncanny Valley,” alienating audiences with their overly digital appearance. As it stands, the final product is very realistic, and all of the models seem to have their own unique personalities.

Though there are painful moments, the movie delivers overall very strong performances with an intriguing narrative. Its implications about humanity effectively posit that we as a human race are defined by how we treat life, in all of its forms. The only complaint one could legitimately make of “Apes” is that the ending is somewhat abrupt. However, if the success of the re-boot as well as a small clip found after a few lines of the ending credits are any clue, we could very well see a prequel sequel in the works.