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What does it mean to be more than just another summer blockbuster? How do you separate yourself from the crowded marquee of countless other generic big-budget spectacles that invade our cinemas each year? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you turn The Dark Knight Rises into a political allegory that reshapes the possibility of myth-making in the ultimate American mythos, the superhero. If you’re Joss Whedon, you use The Avengers to set a new bar for witty dialogue and compelling group dynamics as well as incorporating arguably the greatest fight scene in all of superhero-dom. I did not think I would ever place Planet of the Apes reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the same league as those two top-tier blockbusters. I was dumb for doubting it because this particular origin story has more heart, brains, and meaning than the rest of the franchise combined, and it holds its own with the very best of the summer blockbusters.

Set in the near future (man is going to Mars so it can’t be the present), Rise of the Planet of the Apes defies franchise expectations by focusing not on men who are tormented by their ape overlords, but on the apes who are punished and tortured until they finally rebel against their human oppressors. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a very special chimpanzee. When his mother, a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s cure, is put down trying to protect her newly born son, geneticist Will Rodman (127 Hours‘ James Franco) takes Caesar home where he quickly learns that Caesar’s intelligence is far superior to that of a normal chimp. I don’t want to ruin the chain of events that lead to ape rebellion, but after raising Caesar as his own family for many years, humanity’s own dark side prods Caesar and the mistreatment of his fellow apes to finally fight back.

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Whereas most of the films in the franchise portrayed the apes as evil conquerors, Rise of the Planet Apes paints Caesar as a burgeoning freedom fighter whose constant exposure to injustice leads him down the path to revolution. I have more to say about Andy Serkis in a second, but it is exceptionally impressive that in this film, they were able to make me care more about Caesar and his comrades-in-arms than any of the flesh-and-blood people that populated the screen. Unable to talk for most of the film (don’t worry franchise purists. They’re voice boxes return), Rise of the Planet of the Apes still managed to turn Caesar into a sympathetic figure of the injustice and cruelty man inflicts on animals just through strong writing and superb animation. And also, the motion-capture work that Andy Serkis did, but, yet again, more on that in a second.

Twice now, I have cared more about an Andy Serkis creation in a movie than the actual actors he was playing across from. A lot of that is the writing, but if there wasn’t a talented actor bringing these intricately animated figures to life, they just wouldn’t click with audiences. Gollum isn’t actually one of the two characters I was referring to, but would his arc through the Lord of the Rings franchise had seemed so tragic and sympathetic if Andy Serkis hadn’t been behind his movements? I think not. But between Caesar and the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Andy Serkis managed to elicit such strong emotional reactions from me just by playing apes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Caesar is the strongest of his performances thus far, and I hope (if the writing is good) that he gets to return to this role at some point in the future.

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It wouldn’t be much of a summer blockbuster if it didn’t have the requisite action sequences and in that regard, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fairly restrained, although part of me wants to say that it does so in a good way. A good three-quarters of the film is nothing but introducing us to the character of Caesar, the world he finds himself in, and then the path of abuse and punishment that leads to him rising up against his oppressors. I applaud the film’s decision to devote so much time to developing not just Caesar (though he gets the brunt of the development) but also Will, and Will’s Alzheimer-suffering father (John Lithgow). However, the film’s final sequence, where the apes finally rise up, seemed rushed, although that complaint is mitigated by the obvious sequel hooks that it’s ending left in place.

I’m going to keep this short because I want to work on my screenplay tonight (I’m 50 pages into my third screenplay since October. I’ve finished two others) although there’s a good chance that I’m just going to end up playing Tropico 4 or watch The Master which I have at home from Netflix. My roommates appear to be having some type of party down stairs so maybe I’ll join in. Although, they’re being a little raucous so it might be too much party for me and I’ll just stay in my attic. If you like smart, well-crafted science fiction and want a compelling lead, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as good as any American summer blockbuster to come out in years. If you’ve put off watching it because of the travesty of the Tim Burton remake, get over that fear right now, and check this film out.

Final Score: A-

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