Summer 2011 hasn’t been lacking in colorful, interesting movie characters, even if far too many of them were more compelling in trailers and other pre-releases than they actually were in the finished, theatrical products. In the comic book world alone, we’ve met a mythical God who’s charismatic, brooding, and stricken with daddy issues (Thor), an arrogant playboy forced to become an intergalactic savior (Green Lantern), an eventual supervillain in his tormented, borderline hero stage (Michael Fassbender’s pre-Magneto in X-Men: First Class), and a puny Brooklyn kid turned patriotic demigod (Captain America: The First Avenger). With August in full gear, Hollywood’s window to unveil effects-riddled blockbusters is rapidly shutting, yet, without the deserved fanfare, the June-through-August run’s best popcorn movie has been saved for nearly last.

That’s right—Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes, the seemingly unnecessary seventh entry into the sci-fi franchise started way back in 1968, is superior to the season’s previous big-studio tentpoles. Director Rupert Wyatt first primetime feature can also boast about having the most well-developed and sympathetic character of the summer: Caesar, a brainy ape raised by humans from his infantile time through age eight, and amazingly embodied through motion-capture technology by the actor Andy Serkis (Gollum in the Lord Of The Rings flicks and the title beast in Peter Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake).

For a CGI showstopper, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes is surprisingly intimate, and, throughout its second act and well into the third, largely dialogue-free. Treated like small-scale dramatic leads, the apes, orangutans, and gorillas in Wyatt’s film are, collectively, a magnificent achievement. At one point, Wyatt and screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (who previously collaborated together for the 1997 creature feature The Relic) forget about all of their human characters and predominantly focus on the primates, animals rendered through a seamless mixture of mo-cap performances and real-life apes. And that’s where Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes—a franchise reboot that owes much to 1972’s Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes—truly soars, abandoning a minor cluster of bland flesh-and-blood actors, led by a foolishly disinterested James Franco.

Of all the summer’s high-profile movies, this one arguably had the lowest expectations cast upon it, and understandably so. It was a mere ten years ago that Tim Burton remade the original Planet Of The Apes with minimal flair and laughable results. Its rather clunky title aside, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes didn’t exactly help its own cause, either; initial previews centered on the film’s heightened action, which, in reality, is saved for the climax. But with such an emphasis on the film’s aspects that most parallel other loud summer blockbusters, those early clips undermined Wyatt’s strikingly emotional and restrained picture.

When Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes erupts into a dark, violent, and boisterous apes-on-the-attack finale, it’s an inevitable conclusion set up incredibly well by what’s previously a poignant character study, albeit one about a human-minded chimp. To be more specific, one that’s manhandled by Serkis’ remarkable work as Caesar; it’s a tech-heavy performance that’d be in contention for every major Supporting Actor award come year’s end, but will most likely go overlooked by voting committees that view motion-capture turns as disconnected playtime. If Serkis manages to earn the statuesque love, however, we can’t imagine there’d be any haters who’ve seen Rise; he’s that damn good, and, significantly because of him, the year’s biggest primate movie is also one of the 2011 calendar’s strongest works thus far.

The Season's Most Impactful Characters Are A Bunch Of "Damn, Dirty Apes"

Origin stories are in vogue these days, but none seen in recent months have executed the beginning motivations of a primary character quite like Rise. It’s the story of the aforementioned Caesar, an ape born inside a San Francisco-located medical research laboratory to a uniquely smart test ape; hairy mommy is the prized lab chimp of Will Rodman (Franco), a 10-year veteran scientist dedicated to developing ALZ-112, a serum that’s meant to cure Alzheimer’s and other brain disorders. The mother ape goes, well, apeshit one day and gets shot to death, leaving an unnamed baby chimpanzee in Will’s care. He takes it home to his Alzheimer’s-stricken father (John Lithgow), and, together, father and son raise Caesar as their own quasi-son.

The privileged chimp gets his own plush bedroom (in the attic), eats fresh fruit for breakfast, and lives like a fortunate boy; as an eight-year-old primate, though, Caesar starts to come of age, watching the neighborhood kids play from the attic’s window and painfully asking Will, via sign language, “Am I a pet?” A moment of overprotection toward Will’s pops leads to a bloodied-up neighbor and a trip to an Animal Control compound, where Caesar’s forced to live amongst his own kind for the first time. The other apes look at his sweater and pants with scorn; his attempts to shake hands with an alpha male turns into a beat-down session. But it doesn’t take long for Caesar to earn his prison-mates’ respect through singularly intelligent actions, all while the advanced ape stews over an abusive employee (Tom Felton) and learns to resent his former owner, Will.

 
The apes themselves are fully realized antiheroes worthy of viewers’ goodwill, as well as outstandingly crafted models for Hollywood’s technological capabilities done right.
 

Soon enough, Caesar and his new minions break out of the compound, and that’s where Rise’s requisite action spectacles find their way into the narrative. Wyatt, whose only previous credit is the well-reviewed 2008 crime drama The Escapist, stages the late-game mayhem with deftness, achieving suspenseful thrills along with satisfying character payoffs for the prominent apes. There’s also just the right amount of rollicking imagery to ensure an admission price’s justification, particularly a hulking gorilla’s leap onto a helicopter as bullets rip into its chest.

The chopper scene’s aftermath, a touching moment in which the brave gorilla dies in Caesar’s arms, registers more emotionally than of the death scenes in, say, Cowboys & Aliens—a real testament to the great character work done here with the apes themselves. As Caesar, Serkis mesmerizes through evocative facial expressions, palpable body language, and eye-acting; it’s a masterful exhibition of thespian-delivered invention, a rallying cry for those who defend CGI and Hollywood’s new-age innovations against purists too set in their ways to not see what Serkis and WETA Digital (the Peter Jackson-backed company responsible for Rise’s ape magic) as glorified video game stuff.

An actor isn’t much without his or her script, of course, so it’s only fair to acknowledge Jaffa’s and Silver’s impressive script with high regard. The preconception of a film such as Rise (i.e., a major studio-funded, summer money-chaser) is that characterization will be an afterthought, drilled into unimportance by unbridled action and expensive graphics. Quite unbelievably, Jaffa and Silver have constructed a showy genre piece that’s steeped in personification. Several of the film’s quieter moments show Caesar’s heartbreaking aspiration towards acceptance, such as his using a rock to draw a window on his cell’s wall and his refusal to “go home” with Franco’s Will, the latter a superlative example of voiceless emoting from Serkis.

One Way Rise Could Have Been Even Better? If Andy Serkis Somehow Played James Franco's Role Via Motion-Capture, As Well

With such excellently handled apes, it’s a letdown that the humans in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes are so bland. Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) isn’t given a single thing to do as Franco’s love interest—well, except look pretty, which she does quite well, actually. But her lifeless role complements that of Franco, who plays his one-dimensional part with frustrating indifference. The most disinterested Academy Awards host of all time brings little to an already thin assignment; one can imagine that Franco signed onto Rise with the words “paycheck job” in his head. Little did he know, though, that he’d joined the rare cash-in project that’s actually special.

Worse than Franco’s hardly-there performance is the film’s uncharacteristically hokey, and ultimately god-awful, usage of Charlton Heston’s infamous line from the ’68 original: “Take your paws off of me, you damn, dirty ape!” Distractingly bad, that referential piece of dialogue briefly takes one out of Rise, especially since the rest of the Wyatt’s pic effectively sticks to a straight-faced tone.

That you’re rooting for Caesar to bruise up the speaker with his “damn, dirty” paws is a signifier of what makes Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes so triumphant: the apes themselves are fully realized antiheroes worthy of viewers’ goodwill, as well as outstandingly crafted models for Hollywood’s technological capabilities done right. Much to skeptics’ disbelief, Caesar and his band of disgruntled primates have earned the right to chest-thump their way to the top of any respectable best-of-summer list.