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Even the name "Planet of the Apes" today rings with the kitschy echo of that first, 1968 sci-fi classic that, woe unto the successful, now evokes nothing as strongly as Charlton Heston on a beach weeping at the sight of the Statue of Liberty in ruins. It has been spoofed endlessly and famously since — the nod at the end of "Spaceballs" and the "Simpsons" musical starring Troy McClure both were devastating, if hilarious — and has suffered similarly to "Soylent Green," oddly enough another dystopian Heston artifact of the era. Maybe it's a pitfall of powerful writing or a knock on the depth of the movies themselves, but it's of no help to a film's place in history if it can be summarized in a single line, whether that's "Soylent Green is people!" or "You maniacs! You blew it up!"
What propelled those lines was their significance to the key twist in the plot. In the original "Planet," that was, obviously, that the apparent alien world the astronauts had found was actually Earth. (That sounds quaint now, but if you saw it at age 10, not expecting the reveal, it was a damn spooky concept.) There's not much in the way of catchy lines during "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a clunky title that would have done just fine as "Rise of the Apes" if the franchise hadn't demanded the hat-tip. What "Rise" does well, though, is set in motion a series of plausible (as these things go, anyway) events that we're told, with admirable subtlety, will explain the simian world of the original "Planet." It also will have you wondering whether an entire planet of these apes wouldn't represent at least a marginal upgrade from this planet of the humans.
To get from the apes who fling feces at school children to the apes who speak in continental accents and run everything, you have to make them very smart indeed. Fortunately, in San Francisco, a lab-coated James Franco is concocting a viral treatment that helps the brain regenerate cells, in his post at a major pharma outfit that intends to get stinking rich by curing Alzheimer's. When the test-chimp for this project has to be put down, the good doctor adopts her newborn, who soon exhibits incredible intelligence. With his father (John Lithgow) struck by dementia, the doctor is soon testing the treatment on him, and finds that it shows explosive results, but fades. When he develops a "more aggressive" version of the stuff, and resumes trials with new chimps, we soon see super-smart chimps quite upset with their surroundings. And the now-grown baby, Ceasar, is able to rally his primate brethren in what amounts to a prison movie inside a medical thriller.
PETA apparently put its stamp of approval on "Rise," as the film offers a fairly bleak view of animal testing and animal imprisonment. That arises mainly from the empathetic performance as Caesar by Andy Serkis, who has made a brilliant career, truly, from running around in monochrome suits and having characters digitally superimposed on his form, from his "Lord of the Rings" turn as Gollum to Peter Jackson's "King Kong" (he was Kong) to, now, a hyper-intelligent ape who must carry the emotional heft of the story without dialogue. Rupert Wyatt's direction favors a tighter, more intimate story than you might be expecting, and in the end, you might be let down if you're expecting widespread CGI devastation. But there's nothing here but pure summer popcorn flick. Stick around through the credits to see, with brutal concision, how the world ends. You'll leave humming Patrick Doyle's score and recalling that ape shall never kill ape. That old adage, however, doesn't stop humans from accidentally doing a real number on humans.