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In the 1968 original Planet of the Apes (based on the French novel by Pierre Boulle), Charlton Heston's character, an astronaut stranded on a future Earth run by warlike primates, began the movie as a sneering cynic and ended it as an anguished humanist. Being imprisoned and mistreated by animals taught Heston's Taylor the value of his manhood. Caesar, the super-intelligent chimp protagonist of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Twentieth Century Fox), follows the reverse trajectory: He's an ape who reclaims his animal nature after being imprisoned and mistreated by men. Whereas the original was a work of speculative science fiction—a chin-stroking fable about evolution in the nuclear age—this revisiting of the Planet of the Apes myth is an animal-rights manifesto disguised as a prison-break movie. And, unlike the murky 2001 Tim Burton reboot, this movie is a worthy claimant to the simian throne and the rare summer blockbuster that gets more, not less, fun as it goes along.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is technically speaking a prequel to the '68 film, though any attempt to create continuity between their two universes feels comical. This movie takes place in the present day, where a young San Francisco scientist, Will (James Franco), is developing a gene therapy intended to boost brain function. Will is extra-motivated to hurry the process along, given that his father (John Lithgow) is in the middle stages of Alzheimer's disease. The formula is being lab-tested on chimpanzees, one of whom, a female nicknamed Bright Eyes, has been making unprecedented progress on ape intelligence tests.
But on the day of Will's presentation of the promising new drug to investors, his lab experiences the first of several spectacularly ill-timed security breaches. Bright Eyes breaks loose, crashes into the conference room mid-PowerPoint presentation, and is shot dead. As it turns out, the crazed chimp was only trying to protect her newborn son, whom Will (in spectacular security breach No. 2) subsequently takes home and raises as his own. The baby ape, Caesar, has inherited his mother's cognitive abilities and then some: He's soon fluent in sign language and capable of beating Will at chess.
Caesar—rendered in CGI as an infant and played as an adult by a motion-captured Andy Serkis—at first serves as a companion and surrogate child to Will and his veterinarian girlfriend (Freida Pinto). But as Caesar grows stronger and smarter, he (in an uncanny echo of the real-life chimp at the center of the recent documentary Project Nim) becomes unmanageably dangerous. He's eventually exiled to a grim primate center where the cruel boss (Brian Cox) looks on dispassionately as his sadistic son (Tom Felton) torments the new arrival with a cattle prod.
This long pseudo-scientific windup can be a slog at times. Franco's amiable but edgeless character is something of a blank slate, and a scene in which he clashes with the villainous head of his company's board (David Oyelowo) over funding for the experiment seems to recur in identical form every twenty minutes. But once the movie leaves behind the yammering of humans to concentrate on the near-wordless communication of apes, things pick up considerably. This engaging middle stretch is essentially Quest for Fire by way of Papillon: Through a wildly implausible yet satisfying series of plot developments, Caesar manages to put his fellow ape inmates on the fast track to evolution and to bust the whole havoc-wreaking lot of them out of the slammer.
The big action climax, in which a Caesar-led militia of chimps, gorillas, and orangutans does battle with helicopters and mounted policemen on the Golden Gate Bridge, is the kind of loopily glorious sequence that justifies the existence of the summer blockbuster. * The primate army, created through a mixture of motion-capture and digital animation, looks fantastic, and the fight choreography imaginatively explores the possibilities of ape vs. human warfare. Just as importantly, the apes' investment in their revolutionary struggle, and Caesar's existential dilemma as a not-quite-human, not-quite-ape, have been sufficiently well established that the outcome of the battle matters. When Will once again comes face-to-face with the chimp he once kept as a quasi-pet, we understand both his love for Caesar and the violence that love has unknowingly wrought.
That a movie starring a CGI chimp could attain this (or any) degree of emotional resonance is largely a gift of the performance of Andy Serkis, who's been called "the Charlie Chaplin of motion capture." Serkis, a 47-year-old English theater actor, played the role of the cave-dwelling Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies, and also the titular beast in Peter Jackson's King Kong. It's impossible to know with certitude which of the gestures and expressions we see onscreen are Serkis' and which were added in post-production (though this making-of featurette offers a side-by-side glimpse at some pre- and post-production scenes).
All I know is that I cared about Caesar in a way I haven't about a computer-generated movie character since, well, Gollum. There's a debate brewing about whether motion-capture performances like Serkis' should be eligible for the Oscar. It's easy to see why flesh-and-blood actors might be wary about technological invasion of their turf, but Serkis' incarnation of the bitter, conflicted Caesar is nothing if not fleshly. Maybe Rise of the Planet of the Apes will serve as a liberatory manifesto not only for the downtrodden simians of the world but for the growing army of motion-capture actors in their electrode-dotted suits.
Correction, Aug. 10, 2011: The sentence originally stated that baboons were in the climactic last battle. They were orangutans. (Return to the corrected sentence.)