August is traditionally (tradition = since around the late 1990s) meant to be the winding-down part of the summer, when the films that aren't really meant to be good are released; what that has actually meant for three years running is that the August releases tend to be the slightly more personal and idiosyncratic ones that manage to sneak out without being passed over too many times by the studio moneymen, and so the alleged "wind-down" movies tend to be as good or better than the big tentpoles. Case in point, we have the freshly-minted Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the last tentpole movie until Thanksgiving, which comes in with two huge strikes against it: it is A) the demi-prequel to a 43-year-old movie, the genre-defining Planet of the Apes, a film that B) already had not one but three more-or-less prequels released by the time it was five years old, making Rise... kind of, vaguely, a remake. And yet even with that standing in its way, it has managed to be one of the most thoroughly delightful movies of the season that it is ostensibly closing out; my gut says that it's second only to Captain America, and likely better-suited to repeated viewings.

The 1968 classic begat four sequels, a TV series, and an infamous 2001 remake that was, until Alice in Wonderland, the uncontested low point of Tim Burton's directorial career; Rise... exists in the same continuity as none of them. Functionally, it fulfills the same broad role as the fourth movie in the franchise, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes: a super-intelligent chimpanzee named Caesar, fed up with the amoral cruelty of Homo sapiens against the rest of the great apes, leads a revolution against the humans, though it's not a remake of that picture, so much as an origin story for a new continuity. That said, it still trades heavily on the audience's knowledge of, and love for, the first movie in particular - it contains a number of in-jokes, some of which land better than others (this film's crudely-inserted iteration of the iconic line, "Take your stinking paws off me, you damned dirty ape", is a strong candidate for Worst Moment in an Otherwise Good Movie in 2011) - and it manages the neat trick of fully living up to the legacy of those movies (which are admittedly not very good for the most part, though there exist those of us who enjoy them very much anyway) while also being a very 2011 sort of effects-driven action-adventure movie, despite the fact that those films were made (after the first one and part of the second) in the idiom of early '70s kiddie-matinee ephemera, a simpler, more naΓ―ve style of filmmaking than audiences today* would be apt to put up with.

Anyway, the film itself: sometime in the future so near it might as well be today, Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a wonder drug in the gleaming corridors of Gen-Sys, a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical R&D company. Specifically, he's trying out a potential cure for Alzheimer's on chimpanzees, and it has the side-effect, when accidentally given to a pregnant chimp named Reference to the First Movie, of creating a little baby super-chimp, named Caesar by Will's diseased-ravaged father, Charles (John Lithgow), another beneficiary of Will's new drug, in a strictly unethical bit of human testing that Will can get away with because he is the hero of a motion picture and therefore doesn't have to be concerned that he might be wrong.

Caesar himself is CGI, a terrific piece of motion-capture performed by Andy Serkis, who we can all surely agree is the greatest actor of the nascent technology, having already played Gollum in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers and The Return of the King and the titular gorilla in the lumbering 2005 King Kong remake. Setting aside for the moment the quality of the effects work, I am comfortable saying that Caesar is the best work that Serkis has done yet: a natural extension of his Kong, in that he is playing a non-speaking ape who nevertheless has to carry the emotional center of our movie - central to the Planet of the Apes mythos being that the viewer invariably ends up liking the apes more than the human beings - requiring a treacherous balancing act between seeming animal-like enough that we aren't taken out of the illusion, but anthropomorphic enough that we can readily relate to him. Serkis strikes the balance so flawlessly - aided, undoubtedly, by a clutch of technicians at Weta - that it doesn't even hit home until after the movie's over what a stunningly complex thing he had to do. Do I miss the old films, with actors playing human-sized apes in masks that look convincingly like no particular animal in Earth's history? Of course, for I am a romantic and given to cheesy nostalgia. But it is nice to have a Planet of the Apes film in which the apes look like, well, apes.

So Caesar, anyway, is an outstanding character; Will Rodman less so, and this is in large part a deliberate choice made by screenwriter-producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and director Rupert Wyatt. Again, these are movies that are at heart critical of humanity and its flaws (in particular, Rise... is a savage broadside against corporate pharmacology and animal testing), and it make sense that the chimp protagonist is more engaging than his human counterpart, though I think Franco's zoned-out performance is as much an example of poor acting as it purposeful - dude needs to take a fucking break. And it is, generally, the only particular flaw of Rise... that in its first half-or-so, when it's chiefly about the humans involved - Will, Charles, Will's veterinarian girlfriend Caroline (Frieda Pinto), the psychotic John Landon (Brian Cox) who runs the primate facility that Caesar is sent to after behaving badly in public, and where he begins to foment rebellion - the film is not nearly as interesting or fun as it ends up in the second half-or-so, when the action more fully switches over to Caesar's perspective. Perhaps coincidentally, this is also the point where the film stops trying to hard to be a character drama and becomes instead a pretty damn fine action-drama hybrid.

A lot of things are at play here: Wyatt's direction is simply more engaging when he has activity to work with - this isn't his first film, but he's still relatively green, and he doesn't try to do very much with the slower, talkier parts of the movie, nor does he fight against the groaning clichΓ© of the whole "idealistic scientist vs. mercenary businessman" plot that takes up most of the first hour; meanwhile the end of the film is a fait accompli, and sitting around watching Will and his sick dad being hushed and solemn seems too much like filler when we know damn good and well that the purpose of this film is to show how the humans end up losing the world to the chimpanzees (it's no accident that virtually all of the imagery in the ads comes from the last half of the movie, and it's not called Incubation of the Planet of the Apes for a very good reason), making their tiny personal drama seem awfully pointless in comparison.

Anyway, even when it's not at its best, Rise... is at least a diverting science-fiction movie; at it's best, it's some of the most fun to be had in a theater this summer, and one of the handsomest tentpole films of the year. Some of that is thanks to Andrew Lesnie's pretty cinematography, and some of it is thanks, of course to those amazing Weta special effects, and I can't let things go without stopping to mention the CGI, which is honestly, a bit of a letdown. Did Gollum and Kong look this much like cartoon characters? I cannot trust my own memory of seeing them in theaters, but I don't think they did. Not that the apes in the movie - computer-rendered, every last one of them - aren't convincing in their design (though the wise old orangutan Maurice, played by Karin Konoval, is far too big), and they're even integrated into the live-action world fairly well, sometimes even perfectly. There's some certain X-factor, though, that feels "off" about the apes; maybe it's an Uncanny Valley thing, but they're a touch too smooth, their movements too clean and obviously animated. It takes a lot of getting used to it, and well before the end of the movie, it's no longer a bother. But for a while, it's like a tiny, but insistent itch: not enough to wreck the movie, but something you can't ignore no matter how hard you try.

Since I do not want to end on a down note, let me instead praise the film's elegance as a popcorn movie: at 105 minutes, it is exquisitely short, and Wyatt's direction is crisp and kinetic (the opening sequence, in which Caesar's mother is caught and imprisoned, is a masterfully concise bit of exposition). The climactic battle between apes and men, staged on the Golden Gate Bridge, is among the finest setpieces I have seen to incorporate that famous landmark (since its competition includes X-Men: The Last Stand and the bottom-feeding James Bond picture A View to a Kill, this is not inherently high praise), purposefully cross-cutting between individual elements in an almost symphonic continuum of forward momentum and unbearably tense pauses, punctuated by violent outbursts. It's a completely exhilarating sequence that perfectly ends one of the year's most wholly enjoyable movies: just smart enough that it's not embarrassing, not too fast and not too slow, innovative in a completely familiar, comfortable way. Sequels to prequels to remakes to whatever are usually one of the most abominable sins of corporate moviemaking, but in this case, I truly look forward to seeing where these filmmakers take this world next.

Reviews in this series
Planet of the Apes (Schaffner, 1968)
Beneath the Planet of the Apes (Post, 1970)
Escape from the Planet of the Apes (Taylor, 1971)
Conquest of the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1972)
Battle for the Planet of the Apes (Thompson, 1973)
Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Wyatt, 2011)
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2014)
War for the Planet of the Apes (Reeves, 2017)

*Who are, in the main, not more sophisticated than the ones attending matinees in '73, though they have significantly shorter attention spans.