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Let me begin by saying that I cannot tell you my least favorite and favorite lines in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, because I don't want to spoil things for you. But I can tell you that the latter follows immediately after the former, and in doing so, totally eclipses it. Easily one of the best moments from this summer’s blockbusters, maybe the very best.

Okay, that’s out the way. So here we are in August, summer’s dumping ground. And here I am at a prequel to a franchise that has already seen five films, two television series, and a remake that pretty much nobody thought was necessary. And now I’m settling in, bracing for the James Franco show – what hipstersmirk reason brought him to this particular project, and what cinematic winks will he employ to let us know he’s in on the joke?

But then the film starts, and there’s no Franco, only chimps in the jungle and locals eager to catch them and make a profit. And despite myself, I start thrilling to the chase – the dip and swoop of the camera as it follows the panicked chimps, the one-by-one springing of the snares, the zoom on the captured ape’s screaming face inside the cage. Wait a second…

My hopes settle back down during the scene that follows: brilliant researcher Dr. James Franco begging his boss to get approval for human trials on his brain-repair drug, the one with “absolutely no side effects.” Boss telling him, “You only get one shot;” Franco replying, “One shot is all I need.” Ah, yes, the scientist as action hero. Later, in a somewhat stupefying reversal, Franco will become the champion of caution, warning his boss against moving too fast for the sake of profit. Straight up B-movie treatment of the medical biz. Oh, well.

But then Dr. Awesome goes home (bringing a baby chimp with him), and his dad is there. His dad has Alzheimer’s, and his mental decline is tragic in an ordinary, human way. Nothing is overplayed, and now Franco is reminding me of James Dean in his vulnerability. And then the real wonder begins: The Life and Times of Caesar the Chimpanzee, the real story of the film, the story that attempts to answer the question, “Where does he fit in?”

Yes, the ultimate fate of humanity has to be addressed – this is a prequel, after all, and we all know how things end up – but Caesar is the protagonist. His genes have been altered by Franco’s wonder drug, and we get to watch his intelligence, his consciousness, his very self, gradually unfold in light of this “gift.” The previews make this look like a sci-fi action flick. There’s plenty of action – some of it profoundly silly – but at times, Rise is closer to a silent movie in its approach to visual storytelling and its concern for character. (I’m thinking here of Caesar’s extended and engaging encounter with prison culture at the primate center.) You just have to get used to the fact that the character is an ape.

It’s a bold move, because ultimately, it makes humanity the bad guys. Not just because we’re evil and do bad things – some of us do, sure, but some of the apes are pretty nasty, too – but because in the pursuit of our goals, we make messes we’re not equipped to clean up. Happily, the boldness is made easier to take by some beautiful execution. After a dog on a leash barks at him, Caesar fingers his own leash and signs, “Am I a pet?” It seems like a small matter, and Franco is quick to assure Caesar that no, he is not a pet. Our natural sympathy lies with Franco: we know he loves Caesar, that he thinks of him as family. But as Franco talks, director Rupert Wyatt manages to shift our perspective: we see that for Caesar, the chasm between man and chimpanzee has begun to yawn. More than anything, it makes him sad. Now and then, anger will overshadow the grief, but always he comes back to it: the wound that comes from being alone, from not belonging, from not being at home.

Phew - now I can go read Mr. Marks' comments.

Three stars

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