An End to the War

A movie trilogy is a different animal than a series. Rather than an on-going story with repeat characters, a trilogy focuses on a story too large to fit in one movie. It’s closer to a three-act play in construction. The Lord of the Rings and the original Star Wars movies are good examples, and there’s a good chance the current Star Wars series may accomplish the feat as well. I’d also make the case that the special edition of Godfather I & II, cut into chronological order, fits as a trilogy: Vito, Vito & Michael, Michael alone. (We’ll forget about Godfather III; Please, let’s forget about Godfather III!)

With War for the Planet of the Apes, the series begun in Rise and continued in Dawn now fits as a trilogy – and a stunning third chapter it is! The accomplishment is all the more amazing in view of the origins of the series. The original Planet of the Apes is a sci-fi classic, with its script adapted by Rod Serling from a book by Pierre Boulle (who also wrote the novel The Bridge on the River Kwai). With the mammoth success of the movie, Twentieth Century Fox ordered a sort-of sequel, Beneath the Planet of the Apes, with its climax being the total destruction of the planet. Not the best move if you want another sequel, but Fox did the time warp again and went back to show how Earth became the Planet of the Apes. The movies were schlocky after the first, but were embraced by fanboys before Hollywood realized there was such a thing as fanboys. Tim Burton’s remake of the original kept the schlock without the grace of Serling’s script, and it had one of the worse endings ever stuck on a movie. But it was a financial success, grossing nearly $200 million.

At the same time as Burton’s movie with its made-up monkeys, Peter Jackson was revolutionizing character animation by using motion capture (mocap) technology to create Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Animation is originally the artist’s creation, with an actor adding their voice. Mocap technology works more like virtual make-up to support the actor’s performance. It’s the actor’s expressions and physical movements that control the animation, and because of that mocap performances should be considered along with all other performances during awards season. Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar in War is definitely Oscar-caliber.

War takes place fifteen years after the experimental drug augmented the intelligence of Caesar’s band of apes and led to a pandemic that wiped out most of the humans race. But pockets survive, including a military regiment under the command of The Colonel (Woody Harrelson). At the end of Dawn, the human survivors in San Francisco had contacted the regiment, and the Colonel led his men south to battle the apes. War begins with a skirmish between the two groups, with Caesar defeating the Colonel’s men. Rather than killing or imprisoning the surviving soldiers, Caesar sends them back as a peace offering. All he wants is to be left alone by humans. But the maniacal Colonel blames the apes for the destruction of society, and in a horrible attack he comes close to destroying Caesar’s world.

Caesar sends the rest of his apes to where he believes they’ll be safe, while he heads out to have his revenge on the Colonel. Some apes accompany him, including the wise orangutan Maurice (Karin Konaval). Caesar is also haunted by the spirit of Koba (Toby Kebbell) whose anger and obsession precipitated the confrontation with the San Franciso humans in Dawn. Along the way Caesar’s band picks up two new members: the mute human child Nova (Amiah Miller) and the elderly chimp from a Lake Tahoe zoo who thinks his name is what the humans kept calling him, Bad Ape (Steve Zahn).

War for the Planet of the Apes has as part of its DNA the westerns of John Ford, with Caesar coming close to the obsessive Ethan Edwards played by John Wayne in The Searchers. He’s matched by the Colonel, who echoes Marlon Brando’s Kurtz in Apocalypse Now. But War creates its own powerful story, and the interaction between Serkis and Harrelson crackles with electric energy.

While Zahn’s character is called Bad Ape, he is anything but, and Zahn injects a beautiful humanity (it’s the only word that fits) into his character. Humanity also flows from Amiah Miller’s Nova, who is adopted for all intents and purposes by Maurice. She has an assurance in front of the camera that is far beyond her years, and though she only signs a few lines in the film, her eyes speak volumes.

Matt Reeves, who helmed Dawn, returns to the director’s chair for War, and he again collaborated with Mark Bomback on the script. As with the screenwriters of Rise, Reeves and Bomback both play with and pay homage to the original series. Yet War is far superior to any of the original five movies, including the first. War rises to a Shakespearean level of drama, even as it tugs on your heart.

There’s been some talk of a fourth film, but I really hope the studio will leave well enough alone. The story of Caesar in Rise, Dawn, and War is fulfilling, and deserves the grace of an ending.

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The Force Awakens: Discussion with Spoilers

Last week I published a review of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens though I worked hard to not give away any major plot points. One response I received, though, asked for the chance to discuss the movie, so I decided to do another post with the freedom to discuss the full film, spoilers and all, for those who have seen the movie. SO, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE DO NOT READ THIS! Really – trust me. You want to experience this movie without any hints.

Now, for those of you who’ve seen the movie, I’ll outline several aspects of it that struck me. Please feel free to interact in the comments sections about your own reactions to The Force Awakens.

Right from the opening scenes, you could tell this wasn’t a Phantom Menace. That one began with almost a leisurely scene between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon (even when they’re fighting droids), and then it goes downhill as soon as Jar Jar Binks enters the scene. Instead Force matches A New Hope with the dark Star Destroyer sliding across a moon until it completely blots it out. The dark side has come. Abrams had a perfect casting moment when he had Max Von Sydow do a cameo appearance as the person who gives Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) the clue to the location of Luke Skywalker. Von Sydow is about the only active actor left who was a contemporary of Alec Guinness. Abrams also echoed the introduction of Darth Vader with Kylo Ren walking down the ramp from the space ship.

I’d enjoyed John Boyega in Attack the Block and was pleased to see him as Finn. Finn adds nuance and depth to the story. The Imperial Storm Troopers have always been as anonymous as they were bad shots. Their aim has improved a little in Force Awakens – emphasis on “a little” – but Finn gives them a humanity they’ve never had before. Instead of blind obedience, Finn’s inner decency asserts itself when he refuses to shoot during the village massacre. He at first wants to run away – as Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) sees in his eyes – but he’s honorable enough to seek to get Poe’s droid back to the rebels. And after Ren grabs Rey, he switches from running away to running toward the danger.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) takes her place alongside Sarah Conner and Ripley (among others) as sci-fi’s kickass women. Abrams has always been talented at writing strong women, such as Sydney Briscoe in “Alias,” but he’s gone beyond that with Rey. Leia had a bit of this in the original trilogy, but she wasn’t as compelling as Luke, Han, or Darth. Here, though, Rey is front and center, and the final duel with Kylo Ren pays off the build of the plot.

Speaking of Ren, I was pleased that Abrams didn’t try to tease out his identity. From early in the film we know he’s Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, but he’d been seduced by the dark side like his grandfather Anakin. Having the partially melted Vader mask is a great piece of imagery. The moment when he reveals his face to Rey was a shot of adrenalin. You expect the disfigurement of Anakin, but instead you have a handsome young man. It underlines that the scars of the dark side are not outwardly visible.

Using motion capture for Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanata was a much better choice than the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks. Andy Serkis, who plays Snoke, is the leading actor for this effect, so it wasn’t surprising to have him cast as Snoke. Interestingly, the communication scenes that Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) have with Snoke mirror Darth Vader’s interview with the Emperor in The Empire Strkes Back, with the hologram image being enormous. As Serkis was expected, Lupita Nyong’o as Maz was a choice out of left field. You have one of the most beautiful women in film play a diminutive alien with fish-eye goggles, but she nails the character. Her scene with Rey also means that Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film (and one of the few sci-fi movies ever) that passes the Bechdel test.

There’s an interesting connection with the cast in that Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason were two of three main actors in Ex Machina earlier this year. If you want to see how good they are, take a peek at that movie and then compare it to Force Awakens. Here, though, they never have a scene together.

I did enjoy BB-8, who is a worthy successor to R2D2 – and also a much faster droid. With all the running in the movie the stately pace of R2 wouldn’t have worked. A great moment was when Finn flashes BB the thumbs up sign and the droid responds with a lighter flame.

Abrams referenced the original trilogy in ways that both paid tribute to it as well as twisted our expectations. The first appearance of Kylo Ren, the removal of his mask, the attack on the planet killer, all mirror earlier scenes, but nowhere was that used to better effect than Han’s final scene with Ren. It takes place on a bridge over a chasm, just like the scene in Empire where Darth reveals he’s Luke’s father. Instead of the perverse paternal plea of Vader – “We can rule the universe side by side” – you have Han pleading for the restoration of his son. When Ren runs his lightsaber through his father, it’s a gut punch for Star Wars fans.

The very end of the movie could have been trimmed a bit – how many steps can a person climb and keep the interest of the audience? – but the wordless moment of connection between Luke and Rey is perfect. The indicators in the script point to Luke being her father, which means Rey experienced a similar fate as Luke, being separated from her family for most of her young life. (There are other theories out there about Rey, but until the next movie is released I’ll go with this one.)

Those are my thoughts. Please feel free to post your own responses and ideas below, or engage in a discussion. I’ll try to check the blog as often as possible to approve comments to facilitate the discussion. Go.

 

Darkness at Dawn

If ever there was a movie series that has reaped the benefit of modern technology, it’s Planet of the Apes. While the makeup in the original 1968 move was quite impressive for its day, you never forgot that you were watching actors in heavy latex prosthetics. The movie’s theme and its killer twist overcame the prosthetics – and allowed the film to become a five-movie series. There were some makeup improvements in the Tim Burton reboot, but the rest of the film was such a mess you hardly noticed them, and it looked like the series was dead. But then came 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, using motion capture technology and the genius of Andy Serkis’ embodiment of Caesar. For the first time, the intelligence-enhanced apes were believable, and fascinating. The success of Rise led to the newest film, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.

The end of Rise foreshadowed a nasty plague caused by the Gen-Sys anti-Alzheimer’s drug ALZ 113, the treatment that gave Caesar (Serkis) and the other apes their intelligence. In a simple but effective sequence, the plague – called the Simian Flu because of its tie to ape testing – is tracked to its final devastation of mankind. Ten years have passed since Caesar led his apes north of San Francisco to Muir Woods where they set up their own society. During a hunt for food, Caesar and another of the original tribe, Koba (Toby Kebbell) must save Caesar’s son Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) from a rampaging bear. They return to the settlement where Caesar’s wife Cornelia (Judy Greer) presents him with a new child. Cornelia, though, shows signs of illness.

Later while walking through the woods, Blue Eyes and a friend come face to face with a human. The man’s both armed and paranoid about apes, and he shoots Blue Eyes’ friend out of fear. The man is part of a small group under the leadership of Malcolm (Jason Clarke) that wants to find and restore a hydro power plant to give electricity to an outpost of humans still living in San Francisco. Caesar at first refuses the request, forcefully telling the leader of the outpost, Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) to forget the plan. But Malcolm, along with his son Alexander (Kodi Smit-McPhee) and his partner Ellie (Keri Russell), return to the forest and are able to change Caesar’s mind. While they make progress toward peaceful co-existence, both Dreyfus and Koba prepare for war.

Jason Clarke has a wonderful ability to communicate both physical strength as well as sensitive intelligence. His role as Dan, the CIA agent in charge of enhanced interrogations in Zero Dark Thirty, played up how quietly imposing he can be, while in Dawn he is the hope for understanding, following in the footsteps of James Franco’s role in Rise. Oldman is effective as always as the less-than-trusting Dreyfus, while Russell and Smit-McPhee provide good support for the story.

Toby Kebbell’s Koba rises almost to the level of Shakespeare’s Iago or Richard III. He’s fearsome, and the physical manifestation is truly frightening, yet he’ll pull on a mask and act the fool when he must. The moment when he drops the mask, though, is starkly powerful. A strong antagonist is needed to make a story memorable, and Kebbell provides that strength.

Caesar remains the central character, a leader trying to balance power and mercy. While the embodiment is incredible, what sets it apart is when the camera focuses on Serkis’ eyes and you read his thoughts. While he’ll never be nominated for a Best Actor Oscar – the prejudice against technology is too strong – in both Rise and Dawn Serkis does Oscar-caliber work. Serkis continues to be busy, with Avengers: Age of Ultron coming next year to be followed by a new Tintin movie as well as Star Wars 7.

Director Matt Reeves had worked in television (including several episodes of “Felicity” with Keri Russell) before moving to the big screen with Cloverfield and Let Me In. While those movies were a solid start, with Dawn he reaches blockbuster success. He’s assisted by production designer James Chinlund (The Avengers) who creates a post-human world where nature has taken charge again. Also, one particular kudo to the movie for not destroying the Golden Gate Bridge as a cheap post-apocalyptic visual. It’s become so common (Godzilla destroyed it two months ago) that leaving the bridge intact stands out.

With Rise and now Dawn, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, assisted by Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, Unstoppable) on the new film, have not just rebooted the series but have completely reimagined it, adding depth and emotional heart that was absent in the original movies. Dawn made more in its initial weekend than Rise, and it has topped the weekend box office for two weeks straight. According to IMDb, another movie is in the works with Reeves directing as well as collaborating on the script with Bomback. I’m looking forward to seeing it.

 

Anticipation – Summer ’14

Rather than make a long list of movies for my summer preview blog this year, I’ve decided to focus on the films I’m excited about seeing. These are the movies I’d line up to watch on their opening day over the course of the next four months, in the order of their release dates. At the end I’ve included the titles of some movies I may also see, as well as a few that strike me already as turkeys.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 (May 2)

With the reboot of Spider-Man two years ago starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone, director Marc Webb cut out the camp of the Sam Raimi films and replaced it with a harder edge. This time you have three excellent actors – Jamie Foxx, Paul Giamatti, and Dane DeHaan – as the bad guys Spidey must defeat. DeHaan was excellent in Chronicle, which was something of a deconstruction of the genre – super powers won’t solve your problems, it will just super-size them. He’s an actor to watch.

X-Men: Days of Future Past (May 23)

After the classic The Usual Suspects, director Bryan Singer made the first two X-Men movies, which were wonderful. His recent oeuvre (Valkyrie, Superman Returns, Jack the Giant Slayer) hasn’t done well. After Singer, the X-Men series made a bad misstep (“Curse you, Brett Ratner!”), but came back strong with X-Men: First Class. Now we have the best of both worlds, with Singer directing members of his original cast as well as their earlier versions from First Class. Days of Future Past is based on a classic story line from 1980, so it has a strong plot as a starting point. The first trailers look like it’s a winner.

Maleficent (May 30)

This movie does a “Wicked” twist on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale by giving us some sympathy for the Devil – or at least the delightfully devilish Angelina Jolie. It gives backstory that makes the cursing of Princess Aurora more understandable than simply an overlooked birthday shower invitation. Elle Fanning plays the teenaged Aurora, while Jolie’s daughter Vivienne Jolie-Pitt plays the princess as a toddler.  Vivienne had to take the role since all the other children who auditioned for it were completely freaked-out by Angelina in full Maleficent mode. Audiences may be as well.

The Fault in Our Stars (June 6)

One of the pleasures of The Descendants was Shailene Woodley as George Clooney’s eldest daughter. Woodley not only held her own with Clooney, but matched him in magnetism on screen. Now she’s starring in this movie, based on the Young Adult bestseller. Usually in the summer there’s a movie that breaks the blockbuster format for releases, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel three years ago. The Fault in Our Stars may be the movie for this summer.

Begin Again (July 4)

And if The Fault in Our Stars isn’t the antidote to movies filled with explosions, then this one might be it. Director John Carney scored a few years back with the movie Once, that has now become a hit as a musical on Broadway. Here he again explores music and the effect it can have on people. (The original title for the film was “Can A Song Save Your Life?”) He has a wonderful cast to work with: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Catherine Keener, Hailee Steinfeld, and “Maroon 5” frontman Adam Levine.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (July 11)

2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes successfully rebooted the series, after Tim Burton’s 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes crashed and burned. The advances in CGI, as well as Andy Serkis’ incredible ability with performance-capture special effects, made Caesar believable as an ape with enhanced intelligence. In this sequel, humanity has been decimated by a pathogen. The survivors in San Francisco, led by Gary Oldman, come into conflict with Caesar’s clan of intelligent apes.

A Most Wanted Man (July 29)

This thriller is based on a John le Carre novel and stars Philip Seymour Hoffman in one of his last roles. That’s enough to make me to want to see this film, though it also stars Robin Wright, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, and Daniel Bruhl. One caution, though, is that it’s directed by Anton Corbijn, who made the George Clooney misfire The American. Hopefully Corbijn learned from that experience.

Get On Up (August 1)

The trailer for this bio-pic of the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, is reminiscent of Ray and Walk The Line, but with better dancing. It stars Chadwick Boseman, who had a star-making turn in the Jackie Robinson bio-pic 42 last year. The movie also has The Help of Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer as Brown’s mother and aunt respectively.

What If (August 1)

This movie was originally titled “The F Word” and was shown at some festivals last year, but is only now being released. It stars Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan as two people who form a platonic bond of friendship. Radcliffe moved on from the Harry Potter series with an effective performance in The Woman in Black, but the real attraction here is Zoe Kazan. The granddaughter of Elia Kazan wrote and starred in the excellent and inventive film Ruby Sparks. Apparently much of the dialogue for What If was improvised on the set, which with Kazan could be a strength.

Frank Miller’s Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (August 22)

The original Sin City opened the door for semi-animated movies both good (300) and bad (Sucker Punch). Now co-directors Miller and Robert Rodriguez have returned to town to deliver another story from Miller’s series of illustrated novels. Mickey Rourke, Bruce Willis and Jessica Alba reprise their roles from the original movie, and are joined by Eva Green, Lady Gaga and Josh Brolin.

Others movies that I’m on the fence about: Godzilla, Jersey Boys, Edge of Tomorrow, A Hundred Foot Journey, The Giver, Guardians of the Galaxy, Lucy, and If I Stay.

And there are some movies this summer that you’d have to pay me to see: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (Haven’t they reached their twenties yet?), Transformers: Age of Extinction (This franchise should have reached the age of extinction two movies ago), The Expendables 3 (More expendable than ever?) and Hercules (The Rock should have rolled past this one).

Agree? Disagree? Are there other films on your list? Please feel free to leave a comment.

 

A World-Class Adventure

When Georges Remi was a schoolboy in Belgium during the First World War, he would draw cartoons about a boy playing tricks on the German soldiers who’d occupied his country.  He refined this idea when he was a teenager and created a comic strip about Totor, an adventurous Boy Scout.  After graduation, Remi took the penname of Herge and went to work for a Belgian newspaper where he produced a weekly children’s supplement.  While there, he came up with the idea of a teen reporter who has adventures all over the world, taking inspiration from a real-life French investigative journalist, Albert Londres.  In 1929, the first of the adventures of Tintin was published.

Herge would do extensive research of the settings for his stories, and incorporate contemporary political situations.  For instance, The Blue Lotus (1934) takes place in Japanese-occupation China.  The Tintin books became a huge international success, eventually being translated into 50 languages and selling over 200 million copies.

The one place where Tintin did not catch on, though, was in the United States.  It remained a specialty item that a few people discovered and cherished (like the French comic book series, Asterix).

Now Steven Spielberg and Peter Jackson have given US audiences The Adventures of Tintin.  It’s a chance to experience the thrill and fun of Tintin in a movie drawn (you could say) from three of Herge’s books.

While shopping in an open-air market, Tintin (Jamie Bell) finds a beautifully-made model of a three-masted ship, the Unicorn.  He purchases it, just before it can be bought by Ivan Sakharine (Daniel Craig).  Sakharine offers him whatever he wants to sell him the model, but Tintin refuses.  As he leaves the market, another man warns Tintin to be careful of Sakharine.  Tintin takes the model home, where his dog Snowy accidentally breaks it while chasing a cat.  The man who warned Tintin in the market winds up being murdered on Tintin’s front step.  However, he manages to leave Tintin a cryptic clue.  That night the model is stolen, but when it was broken a slim metal case hidden within the ship fell out and was missed by the thieves.  With Snowy’s help, Tintin finds it and discovers a clue to a treasure written on thin parchment.

The parchment is stolen by a pickpocket, but Tintin’s friends, the twin detectives Thomson and Thompson (Nick Frost, Simon Pegg) are hot on the pickpocket’s trail.  Before Tintin can investigate further, he’s kidnapped by Sakharine’s henchmen.  Snowy chases the kidnappers, and when they load Tintin onto a ship, Snowy manages to sneak aboard and free his friend.  Tintin discovers another hostage on board, the drunken Captain Haddock (Andy Serkis).  Escaping from the ship, Tintin, Snowy and Haddock must race to collect all the clues to the Unicorn’s treasure before Sakharine can get his hands on them.

Spielberg has used motion capture technology to create this animated movie, though the renderings are so realistic you’ll have to remind yourself the visuals are computer-generated.  The motion capture process has the cast actually acting out their parts, and then the performances are fed into a computer where digital animation is added.  Serkis is the premier actor working in this technology, having created Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Motion capture was championed by Robert Zemekis and used for full movies such as The Polar Express, Beowulf, and Disney’s recent A Christmas Carol.  However, the nuclear bomb Mars Needs Moms (Cost: $150 million; Gross: $20 million), led Disney to shutter Zemekis’ company, ImageMovers Digital.  Producer Peter Jackson and the geniuses at Weta Digital have removed the stiffness that was a hallmark of the ImageMover pictures and given Tintin a completely natural feel.  Spielberg’s incredible eye for camera shots translates seamlessly into this new medium.  (Take a look at the mirror shot in the market, shortly after the beginning of the film, and you’ll see what I mean.)  You’ll see a strong resemblance in this movie to another in Spielberg’s oeuvre, Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The writers who adapted the books are a dream team for this project.  Steven Moffat is writing and producing the current Doctor Who (he wrote the classic – and scary – episode “Blink”).  Edgar Wright wrote and directed Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz, and the underappreciated Scott Pilgrim vs. The World.  Joe Cornish is also a writer/director, having done last year’s gangs vs. alien invaders movie, Attack the Block.  They’ve created a slam-bang adventure with a strong dose of comedy.

Jamie Bell brings the right amount of sincerity to the role of Tintin so it doesn’t slip into – well, caricature.  You can accept that this teenaged reporter will know all sorts of arcane facts.  Serkis gives a strong comedic performance as Captain Haddock as well as his ancestor, Sir Frances Haddock.  Craig is especially effective as Sakharine, though you may find yourself checking the credits to confirm that it is really him.  It’s fun to have Pegg and Frost back together again, and they’re delightful as Thompson and Thomson.

Once again, US audiences have been a bit slow to warm to Tintin, as the movie’s made only about $60 million in four weeks of release in the States.  But overseas it has become a solid success, approaching $300 million.  Hopefully the US theater goers will catch up with the rest of the world and see this delightful, thrilling movie.

Serkis Performer

I’ve always wondered if M. Night Shyamalan was traumatized by the original Planet of the Apes as a kid, leading him to believe that every movie had to have an incredible twist at the end.  I do still remember the chill I felt, watching as the Statue of Liberty is revealed and realizing Charlton Heston had returned to Earth.  The movie had added resonance with its theme of racial conflict and prejudice since it was released on April 3, 1968.  Martin Luther King Jr. was shot in Memphis the next day.  But in spite of the excellent writing and iconic imagery, the movie had a major weakness – the apes.  While it won an honorary Oscar for makeup achievement, it was still Roddy McDowall, Kim Hunter, and Maurice Evans beneath the latex, wigs and greasepaint.   The original spawned a quartet of sequels to fill in the backstory, but you always knew it was human actors in masks.  Even in the Mark Walberg/Tim Burton remake, you never forgot it was Michael Clarke Duncan playing the gorilla commander.

But that was before motion capture technology was perfected.  It was also before Andy Serkis.

Serkis started as a regular actor on television and in films in his native England.  Then he made an indelible mark embodying Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  He captured the corrupted soul and the desiccated body.  While the outward form was CGI, the animation used Serkis’ facial expressions and body movements as a physical platform.  And of course, it was Serkis’ voice filling out the characterization.  In a sense, the CGI was simply the makeup he wore.  Serkis did double duty in Peter Jackson’s remake of King Kong, playing both the ship’s cook Lumpy as well as Kong.  The movie had its weaknesses.  Why Jackson put a pas de duex with Kong and Naomi Watts on a frozen Central Park lake in the middle of the destruction of New York City, I’ll never understand.  Still, Kong came across as an ape rather than a 1930’s claymation monster or a 1970’s guy in a monkey suit.

In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the filmmakers once again went to the backstory of how the Earth changed, but rather than remake the earlier sequels, they did a fully original take on the tale.  Will Rodman (James Franco) is a researcher looking for a cure for Alzheimer’s.  He has a personal stake in it, since his father Charles (John Lithgow) is suffering from the disease.  Rodman’s experimental virus-based gene therapy leads to an unexpected side-effect when tested on chimpanzees, especially the female Bright Eyes.  It increases intelligence exponentially.  But on the day Rodman is presenting his findings to the board of the pharmaceutical company where he works, Bright Eyes goes ballistic.  She attacks Robert (Tyler Labine), the lab’s ape handler, and rampages through the building before being shot on the boardroom table.  The head of the lab, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) orders Rodman’s project shut down and the other test apes euthanized.  It’s only when Rodman and Robert are cleaning out the chimp’s cage that they discover the reason for her attack.  She thought they were threatening her newborn baby.  Rodman can’t bring himself to kill the baby and instead brings it home.  Charles christens the baby Caesar.  Rodman soon realizes Caesar’s inherited his mother’s intelligence.

The story jumps forward to show Caesar as both an adolescent and an adult chimp.  Along the way Rodman falls in love with Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto), a primate vet.  “I love apes,” she tells Rodman, then confesses, “and I fear them.”  (Demonstrating more sense than the other characters in the movie.)  Their idyllic world is shattered when Caesar, while trying to protect Charles, attacks Rodman’s neighbor.  A court orders Caesar confined to a primate center run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son Dodge (Tom Felton).

The screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, do play fast and loose with scientific protocols, especially at one point in the movie.  It’s necessary for the story, but it would cause any competent researcher to protest, or maybe rip their eyes out.  On the plus side, the movie is filled with references to the original Planet.  Then near the climax, they take one of the classic lines from Planet and turn it on its head.

While the human actors are competent, and Tom Felton puts his days as Harry Potter’s nemesis Draco Malfoy far behind him, they are completely upstaged by the apes.  Your disbelief is suspended, and you accept them as real.  Outstanding are Karin Konoval as Maurice the Orangutan (the name is a tribute to Maurice Evans whose character in the original was an orangutan), Chris Gordon as the gorilla Koba, and Terry Notary as the chimps Bright Eyes and Rocket.  The star, though, is Serkis.  You read the intelligence in Caesar’s eyes and his growing resentment and radicalization.  The CGI is just the makeup; the performance beneath is Oscar-caliber.

Director Rupert Wyatt only had three credits, one of them a short, before being put in charge of this 90 million dollar production.  He’s crafted an original, thrilling movie where all the money shows up on the screen.  Forget about the sequels from the ‘70’s (and especially the misbegotten TV series) as well as Tim Burton’s remake.  This movie is a worthy successor for the original Planet of the Apes, and if anything it surpasses its source.