It was difficult to choose an opening image, but this one is what I think best encapsulates this movie for me.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the latest in the long list of Hollywood sequels/prequels/remakes/reimaginings that no one but the money people (and a few inspired filmmakers apparently) asked for. It’s a movie that I, for one, didn’t expect to be much better than Tim Burton’s abortive 2001 remake of the original 1968 movie. However, I am here to tell you that Rise is the perfect blend of crowd-pleasing tentpole and smarter-than-average science fiction. It stands tall as a counter-example to the empty promise of genre-as-mainstream in Cowboys and Aliens and goes proudly shoulder to shoulder with previous years’ August scifi surprises.

The Charlton Heston epic started a long and enduring franchise that went backward and forward to tell all kinds of stories set in the universe created by one conceit: sometime in our future, apes will outpace our evolution and replace us as the dominant species. It’s a powerful notion, incorporating several parallel themes about evolution, humanity’s relationship to our nearest genetic cousins, and the hazards of technological progress. I don’t personally hold with stories about the hubris of humankind, stories where science and technology lead us into certain disaster. The subtext of stories like that is always something along the lines of “there are forces we shouldn’t play with” or “humans are not Gods” etc. I think what should stop us from exploring certain types of technology and science falls to our ethical values, which cannot be based on something as vague and inaccessible as religious impulses. The nice thing about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it is ends up being largely about that distinction. It’s about what happens when our methods are unethical but our goals are grandiose, noble, and beautiful.

Not the best example of WETA’s stellar effects work on the apes in the film, but I can tell you that you will believe these creatures as characters and forget that they are created digitally. WETA’s track record persists.

Of course, the goal is to cure a human disease: Alzheimer’s. Will Rodman (James Franco) is bound and determined to find a cure for his father, Charles (John Lithgow, who gives the best performance out of the humans in the film). The virus he develops infects the brain and forces it to repair itself to restore function and even improve it. It becomes an intelligence-enhancing drug. The tunnel-vision brought on by Rodman’s quest is the main cause of everything that goes wrong for everybody in this film, from the small tragedies to the very largest. This is the grounds for whatever element there is here of the “science gone wrong” trope. Of course, science does go wrong in this movie but it’s not inherently the fault of science but due to circumstances and factors that keep key people from paying as much attention as they should. It’s a more honest and nuanced handling of the problem than you’d usually find in a movie like this, where it’s easy to just blame those eggheads. Instead, it’s Jacobs (David Oyelowo) who represents the profit-oriented corporate side of the Gensys company (who Rodman works for) that eventually takes over once Rodman proves that his compound works. By this point, Rodman is beginning to see that what he’s been doing is wrong and the lesson comes at great personal cost. Jacobs, on the other hand, sees dollar signs. This is an indictment of the corporate-sponsored science that dominates many production sectors, especially pharmaceuticals.

All that just goes to show how well thought out this is. Of course, the main plot and drama of the film centers on Caesar (Andy Serkis, who I’ll be talking extensively about later). The virus Rodman has created seems to go haywire but it is discovered that their first subject was merely trying to protect an infant chimp that the scientists had not noticed. This baby is Caesar. When Jacobs has all the other test subjects in the project put down, Caesar remains. Rodman, showing the first glimmer of empathy that will mark the progress of his character arc, cannot euthanize the baby and instead takes him home where he becomes part of the family.

This is where I should mention one of the few flaws in this movie. To get across this necessarily big story, the writers and director (Rupert Wyatt, who shows himself to be a potential powerhouse otherwise) opted to gloss over certain details in favor of convenience. It is not as brazen as in “dumb” movies like Transformers or bad superhero movies, but it is there and it doesn’t quite go away. The earliest example is when the film jumps ahead in time to show different stages of Caesar’s life. Apparently, though we are told the project has to be rebooted, Rodman is still working on ALZ-12 for 3 years, then another five, etc. Of course, we forgive this minor issue because we are captivated by the story of Caesar, which has become the focus of the film.

The performance of Serkis as Caesar is everything in this movie. Tragic, heart-warming, awe-inspiring, spine tingling and chilling, and heroic.

Because his mother had been treated with Rodman’s cure, Caesar is a genetic mutation with even more dramatically enhanced intelligence. Caesar is Rodman’s proof of concept and the push he needs to go around his company’s protocol to give the cure to his father. For a while, they are all happy together. Then it is discovered that humans will eventually reject the virus, developing antibodies that give the treatment diminishing returns. These are nice details, and so is that the virus must be administered repeatedly and isn’t just some glammed up one-shot miracle. The more serious and dare I say realistic treatment of pharmacology in the film is nice, adding a level of merit to the science fiction.

While Caesar is certainly a miraculous being, raising him among humans proves to be problematic. Already proving to be a story about existentialism (“What is Caesar?”), Caesar’s tale is also a tragedy of colliding worlds. He defends Charles and is tossed in an ape sanctuary which is the catalyst for the last of the movie’s thematic charges. In the sanctuary, Caesar experiences othering from his own kind. As a result, he’s utterly alone and constantly frustrated by his in-between nature. In his cell, for the sanctuary is depicted accurately and as such is little more than ape prison, he draws the shape of the window he watched the world from at the Rodman house. It’s very fucking sad. That the dickish masters of the sanctuary, played by a wasted Brian Cox and an evil, but banal, Tom Felton, casually mistreat the animals but in a way that is not extraordinary (nor is the way they are mistreated in the lab, really), is sort of the point which drives Caesar’s existential confusion into a tempered personality with conviction, goals, and one pure desire: freedom.

That cheesy callback to the original’s immortal line is utterly redeemed by this moment, where Caesar sums up where he’s at in a word.

I spent a lot more time analyzing and summarizing the plot than I originally intended, but there is just so much to like and appreciate in the sheer storytelling of this movie. What they manage to get across without dialogue in the second half makes the human acting seem superfluous. Much of it is exposition-heavy and even a bit clunky as a result, but once we get into the apes and watch Caesar’s big revolutionary plan come to fruition, you can feel the movie breaking free from the conventions and limitations of your average summer blockbuster just as Caesar himself breaks free of being your average ape.

Of course, part of the point of the movie is that these apes were never just animals. Even without the intelligent enhancement, they are persons. Like one of the scientists tries to tell an unheeding Jacobs, these are creatures with personalities and attachments and real individuality. That makes the banality of the villains, Jacobs and the sanctuary keepers, a precise decision that perplexed me until I thought about it. See, it’s important that apes are already exploited by pharmacoms and corporations, menaced and captured by opportunistic trappers, and mistreated by dim humans who see them as “nothing but animals”. No extraordinary threat to them is present in the film, nor is there some height of mistreatment that would necessarily foment revolution if they were just that much smarter. Rather, the point is that all of this shit is happening right now and we should be more galvanized to stop it and control it. We should be interested in the notion of personhood as it may apply to apes. But that’s a philosophical problem and most people are about as equipped as Jacobs or Fenton and Cox’s characters to handle that.

And now to talk of Andy Serkis who is nothing short of a revelation here. Combining the tools he invented as an actor to portray other CG characters like Gollum and King Kong, Serkis creates Caesar in every gesture, facial tic, and grunt. You’re going to hear a lot of praise about this and it’ll seem like overpraise, but it isn’t. It’s a role that, in a perfect world, would win tons of acting awards because it is pure acting. Serkis disappears and becomes not only a completely different person, but a believable non or meta-human person. It’s astonishing.

As is the amount of story that is gotten across without dialogue. As the movie drives away from the human characters to focus completely on Caesar, other ape characters are introduced. None gets the level of realization that Caesar does, but there are actual arcs. From the circus organutan to the gorilla to Kova the scar-faced chimp and the bullying gray, all of them get something to do not only during Caesar’s development into Chimp Guevara but also in the final climax. Some of them are more vicious and vengeful than Caesar, but he reigns them in and will not allow any humans to be purposefully killed during their escape (with one exception). That Caesar does not want revenge, merely freedom, speaks to the difference of his experience with humans and also with his “humanity”. It’s not an accident that Caesar is the most human character in the movie, that is a common device of movies that try and assign personhood to nonhumans. The idea is that if we can recognize those best and/or most relatable elements of what is commonly understood to be human nature or the human condition, we can empathize with a nonhuman character without barrier. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar’s humanity is only as well established as his chimpanzeenity, providing an important blend of characteristics that avoid any risk of simply creating a human in an ape’s body and calling it a hero.

Caesar will piss in your Rubicon.

So Rise of the Planet of the Apes didn’t just turn out to be an actually worthwhile prequel/remake/reboot but also a triumph of summer movie scope and smart movie storytelling. It has probably created a viable beginning to a new Planet of the Apes franchise and I really hope they get to tell those stories and keep the same people involved, or at least people as equally intelligent, capable, and respectful to the story that’s begun here. All the pieces are in place for the next chapter, even the seeds of humanity’s downfall (which are not predicated on ape hatred but on a side effect of the ALZ-13 virus, a gas-delivered upgrade of the first version, which goes unnoticed in all the chaos of the ape rampage) are planted.

“Caesar is home,” but I really want to know where he goes next.