There were a few images from movies that left an indelible impression on my mind when I first saw them in childhood. One was laughing hysterically upon seeing Woody Allen getting his arm stuck in a gumball machine while running from the cops in “Take the Money and Run.” Another is Darth Vader taking his mask off in “Empire Strikes Back,” revealing the horrifically scarred mound of goo that passed for his face. And a third would have to be seeing Charlton Heston in “Planet of the Apes,” first because at age six I was stunned that they allowed him to stand naked on TV and then because of the more iconic terrifying image of the collapsed Statue of Liberty at the end of the film. However, that final shot, which helped spark my passion for movies, was ruined by the lame-o series of sequels to “Apes” and especially by Tim Burton’s disastrous remake.
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And so it was that I regarded seeing the new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” about as much as I look forward to seeing torture-porn or Merchant-Ivory costume dramas. Meaning, I thought I’d rather have my eyeballs plucked out.
But every once in a long while, Hollywood still harbors the capacity to surprise me. And it's with an utterly stunned sense of joy that I am happy to declare “Rise” the most entertaining movie of the summer, a film that is jam-packed with moments that will awe and inspire both young and old alike. It will have you thinking, "how’d they do that?” over and over.
The film stars Oscar nominee James Franco (“127 Hours”) as Will Rodman, a young science whiz who’s at the forefront of testing a new Alzheimer’s-fighting drug, AZ-112, on apes at a genetic research firm called GenSys. Franco’s presence serves notice that this film is going to be smarter than usual. While he occasionally misfires, like he did in “Your Highness,” his choice of films is usually tied to great writing.
And that is the case here. Writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver spool out the scientific info with a minimum of confusing jargon while quickly establishing Rodman as a full-bodied, sympathetic character whose father (John Lithgow) is slipping away into the ether of Alzheimer’s disease.
Lithgow’s role is relatively small but he makes the most of it with one of his most affecting and effective film roles in quite some time. And Andy Serkis, known for bringing an astonishing humanity to the facial expressions of CGI-based characters like Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” films and King Kong in the Peter Jackson remake a few years back, outdoes himself here by bringing heartbreaking emotional depth to the main ape, named Caesar.
When the top ape in GenSys’s initial experiment goes, well, ape, just before the board meeting that will approve the beneficial effects of use of the drug on humans, the program is immediately canceled and the dozen apes involved in it are killed. But one baby chimp, Caesar, has been overlooked, and another researcher convinces Rodman to take the animal home and save it from extermination.
As Caesar grows, it’s clear that his intelligence far exceeds that of humans at parallel ages. Rodman realizes that the animal has developed these remarkable traits as a byproduct of the AZ-112 given to his mother and decides to use the drug on his father, who after the treatment appears to heal immediately. Success in improving his father’s condition inspires Rodman and his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) to launch a new, even more secret round of tests. Only this time, both the good and the bad results of their high-risk experiments are vastly heightened.
To spoil another moment of “Rise” would be a crime. Suffice to say, what follows is brilliantly planned and expertly paced jaw-dropping fun rivaled only by “Fast Five” for the craziest two hours of film this year.
And as an aside to those readers who are wondering if “Apes” hides any sucker punches against capitalism or towards an overly biased take against animal experimentation, another prominent conservative site’s head critic was at the screening I attended and he expressed his surprise that the film wasn’t polticized and that the sympathetic and heroic Franco character more than compensated for any risk of mustache-twirling villainy by the other scientists.