The 2011 summer movie season, which began with Thor (or perhaps Fast Five), comes to a satisfying close with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an unasked-for prequel which nevertheless surprises as one of the better films of the summer. This is a film that many people will write off (after all, there's nothing cool or sexy about apes), but that would be a mistake for any moviegoers who appreciate substance with their spectacle. I'm no gorilla geek, either; I appreciate the storytelling and retroactive campiness of the original Charlton Heston movie, but I've skipped the sequels and Tim Burton's maligned 2001 remake. This new film, however, is the most compelling science fiction film I've seen in years, highlighted by a truly mesmerizing motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis (who played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings and King Kong in the 2005 remake). If I were ever to recommend a film for special effects alone, this would be it. Not for the spectacle, but for the performance.
Fortunately the film has a lot else going for it. James Franco eschews his typical stoner persona and gives us a character of real intelligence and warmth. John Lithgow, as his Alzheimer's-ridden father gives a realistic and heartbreaking performance. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) is underwritten but she has a nice, gentle chemistry with Franco. The best performances, however, are by combined efforts of actors and digital technicians who bring the apes to life. Even audiences who are no longer wowed by special effects technology may find themselves impressed here. Rise of the Planet of the Apes loses points for a series of one-dimensional “villains.” That their greed and cruelty ultimately trigger the downfall of the human race is the crux of the story, yet they're so one-dimensional that they represent abstract character flaws, not actual people, and it distracts from the considerable realism of the rest of the tale.
An extra ten minutes to let good actors like Brian Cox (X-Men 2) and Tom Felton (Draco in the Harry Potter movies) add some layers to these characters would've been welcome. These are paltry concerns, however. This is a bittersweet, moving, thrilling, well-made apocalyptic tale that takes the proper time to investigate and develop its characters, ideas, and morality (as all great science fiction does), then rewards the audience with an action-packed third act. Though I'm not fluent in the mythology, it also seems to set the stage very well for the original 1960's film (even throwing in a few in-jokes for the die-hards; others won't even know they've missed anything, however.) Roger Ebert has said that it's not what story you tell that matters, but how you tell it. Though audiences may not be sold on the premise of an “ape-uprising movie,' hopefully they'll turn out for this well-crafted and involving tale.
CONTENT ADVISORY: Rise of the Planet of the Apes is rated PG-13. It contains no nudity or sexuality. A young couple lives together, though whether they got married is unclear. There is minimal language (2-3 moderate profanities). There is violence from humans to animals, animals to animals, and animals to humans, including some apes getting shot. It is not gratuitous, nor is it especially graphic, though there is a little blood. It is likely too intense and scary for small children, however.
MESSAGES TO DISCUSS: Cruelty and greed precede destruction. Treat the Earth and its creatures with care.
Jonathan Decker is the clinical director of Your Family Expert. He is a licensed marriage and family therapist, husband, and father of five. Jonathan earned a masters degree in family therapy from Auburn University as well as a bachelor's degree in clinical psychology from Brigham Young University. He is an actor, author, and television personality.