*Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
You will believe apes will rise. What you may not believe is how much this unexpectedly lovely movie is more about tender emotion between ape and human, and between ape and ape, than it is about summer popcorn action. (Not that there isn't plenty of that, too.)
You may not believe how unaffectedly sincere Rise of the Planet of the Apes is. Oh, it nods to its B-movie progenitors, generating a laugh here and a snort of recognition there. But if the legacy is one of goofy catchphrases and cheesy human bondage, there is nary a bit of snark here. Jokiness and hokeyness have been genetically engineered away, leaving something pure and sweet and poignant, a throwback to the humanist science fiction of the late '60s and early '70s. This is more Charly than Heston.
This Apes is so much not what I was anticipating — Hollywood loves to remove genuine emotion and honest morality from anything it touches — that I hesitate to reveal even the least spoiler-ish moments of it. Because there's a simple joy to be had in merely discovering that there is still room for something more, even in a summer blockbuster primarily designed to appeal to popcorn crowds. James Franco's brain researcher/chimp experimenter Will Rodman is shockingly sympathetic, for one, in what could have been an arrogant mad-scientist role — an emergent quality of Franco's sensitive and perceptive talent.
None of the hot-button issues here are hammered upon, only just lightly touched: the human treatment of animals, genetic engineering, corporate greed, family values. Which leaves room for some truly powerful moments, as the drug-enhanced genius chimp Caesar (motion-captured Andy Serkis) starts making discoveries about his uncomfortable place in the world. He asks a simple question, via sign language, that makes for one of the most touching and unsettling moments on film this year, partly because it has no ready answer.
What director Rupert Wyatt and Serkis and the WETA FX team have done with Caesar here is astonishing, furthering the boundaries even from Serkis' Gollum. Caesar is fully alive in a way that so many human movie characters often aren't, a being of complex emotion who easily elicits complex compassion from us. He alone creates an unusual suspense for the film, suspense you didn't even know you were gripped by until it climaxes in moments both utterly unexpected and perfectly right.
In the same way, even though we're pretty sure we know how Apes must end, it all feels so completely fluid and unforced that it's as if we really don't know where it will go at all. The action sequences contain actual drama. The battle on the Golden Gate Bridge between apes and cops on horseback is startlingly fresh and original, and hence unpredictable. And yet the film doesn't attempt to do too much: There's not only narrative room for a sequel, there's emotional room, too.
When we talk about escaping to the movies, this is the kind of movie we're talking about. Escapism isn't about what happens on the screen, but what happens to us: You want to lose yourself in a movie. This is the essence of the summer flick, and this is how you do it.