There was no rea­son to expect that was any fur­ther gold to be mined from the Planet Of The Apes fran­chise.  As pop­u­lar as it once was, the Apes series is often dis­missed as camp by mod­ern view­ers (Your Humble Reviewer would argue oth­er­wise) — and Tim Burton’s awful 2001 remake of the orig­i­nal film should have been the final nail of the coffin.  Thankfully, 20th Century-Fox’s refusal to give up on this franchise’s prof­itabil­i­ty has result­ed in a reboot that actu­al­ly redeems that usu­al­ly odi­ous term: Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is not only a good film, it’s also the­mat­i­cal­ly dar­ing and emo­tion­al­ly intense in ways you’d nev­er expect from a major stu­dio block­buster.

As the title sug­gests, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes choos­es the very begin­ning of the saga to begin its reboot­ing process.  Will Rodman (James Franco) is a sci­en­tist work­ing on a drug that allows the brain to repair its own dam­aged cells.  He’s got a per­son­al stake in its suc­cess because his father Charles (John Lithgow) is suf­fer­ing from Alzheimer’s Syndrome.  Unfortunately, his pre­sen­ta­tion of a pro­to­type goes awry when his test sub­ject ape goes on a ram­page and is shot down.  Only after the project is shut down does Will dis­cov­er why the ape attacked — she had just had a baby and was try­ing to pro­tect it.

Feeling equal parts guilt and a desire to con­tin­ue his work, Will brings the baby ape home and names it Caesar — and this is where the sto­ry real­ly begins.  Emboldened by Caesar’s unusu­al intel­li­gence, Will tests the for­mu­la on Charles.  He makes a mirac­u­lous recov­ery and all is hap­py for a short while until he starts to fade.  Will gets lost in try­ing to improve the for­mu­la, neglect­ing both Charles and Caesar — and when Charles gets in trou­ble due to Alzheimer’s-induced con­fu­sion, Caesar tries to defend him and ends up in an ani­mal con­trol facil­i­ty.  Picked on by some fel­low apes and an often cru­el staff, Caesar goes from heart­bro­ken to angry and uses his extra­or­di­nary intel­li­gence to plot a revenge that will change the future of both man and ape.

The end result is full of sur­pris­es for any­one expect­ing the usu­al mind­less sum­mer block­buster.  Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes has action at strate­gic sto­ry points but that isn’t what dri­ves its engine.  Instead, it is more inter­est­ed in being a char­ac­ter study — and the char­ac­ter in ques­tion is Caesar.  He is not treat­ed as a tool for easy audi­ence manip­u­la­tion — instead he is treat­ed as a com­pelling, three-dimen­sion­al per­son with an emotional/psychological arc that is rich and involv­ing as any human char­ac­ter you would care to men­tion.

The human-dri­ven side of the sto­ry pales in com­par­ison, with those char­ac­ters por­trayed in a sim­ple man­ner where they func­tion more as cat­a­lysts to the twists and turns of Caesar’s sto­ry.  This is a stick­ing point for some but it seems like a delib­er­ate design to Your Humble Reviewer’s eyes.  Beneath the sci­en­tific ele­ments, the sto­ry is con­struct­ed like a fable about the loss of inno­cence: Caesar is the beau­ti­ful naïf who is robbed of his inno­cence by the actions of humans who sac­ri­ficed their human­i­ty a long time ago.  Even the essen­tial­ly like­able and decent Will hurts Caesar by being inat­ten­tive at key moments and deceiv­ing him.  Without get­ting into too many plot specifics, the sto­ry dar­ing­ly sug­gests that man has essen­tial­ly abdi­cat­ed his right to rule the plan­et — and the behav­ior of most of its human char­ac­ters reflect that idea.

As a result, it is eas­ier to focus on Caesar as the key ele­ment in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes — and the film invests its ener­gy in mak­ing him a fig­ure worth observ­ing.  The CGI effects used to bring Caesar to life are as inspired as they are seam­less.  Better yet, the skill­ful work of motion con­trol actor Andy Serkis gives him a con­vinc­ing phys­i­cal­i­ty that con­veys an often stag­ger­ing depth of emo­tion.  As a result, it’s vir­tu­al­ly impos­si­ble to not be moved by Caesar’s plight — and don’t be sur­prised if you find your­self cheer­ing this spe­cial effects cre­ation on.

Amongst the humans, James Franco does solid work as the story’s arche­typ­al Doctor Who Plays God, admirably under­play­ing in a role that had plen­ty of room for crass melo­dra­ma.  Frieda Pinto is essen­tial­ly win­dow dress­ing as Will’s love inter­est but she’s com­pelling when­ev­er the film requires it.  The same could be said for David Owelowo as Will’s dom­i­neer­ing boss or Brian Cox as the cal­lous own­er of the ani­mal con­trol facil­i­ty.  The best of the human per­for­mances comes from Lithgow, who does a con­vinc­ing job of enact­ing the suf­fer­ing caused by Alzheimer’s syn­drome in a role that is brief but cru­cial to the sto­ry­line.

Finally, it helps that Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is direct­ed with great visu­al imag­i­na­tion by Rupert Wyatt.  He’s not afraid to fol­low the script’s lead of mak­ing the apes the heroes and brings an unex­pect­ed­ly lyri­cal touch to the sto­ry­telling.  As a result, the key moments of Caesar’s jour­ney from babe in the woods to bat­tle-hard­ened lead­er play with a sur­pris­ing degree of pathos.

Wyatt also han­dles the film’s hand­ful of effects-fueled action sce­nes with a keen sense of con­trol: unlike a lot of CGI block­busters, every set­piece here is staged in a way that keeps the action coher­ent and the audi­ence emo­tion­al­ly engaged (see this one with a crowd if you can to get the full effect).  If there’s a crit­i­cism to be made, it’s that Wyatt lets one big in-joke ref­er­ence to Planet Of The Apes tram­ple on a big dra­mat­ic moment — how­ev­er, that’s a minor com­plaint when you con­sid­er how much he gets right.

In short, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is a chal­leng­ing, emo­tion­al­ly demand­ing film at a time of year when you nev­er see either one of those qual­i­ties at the mul­ti­plex (espe­cial­ly in a sci-fi/action tent­pole movie).  Your Humble Reviewer hopes that reboot-hap­py Hollywood will take note of why this film works so well when it reworks its next fran­chise.