Ten years after Tim Burton looselyand clunkilyrebooted 1968's "Planet of the Apes" into the worst film he's ever made, 20th Century Fox has gone back to the well once more for an Earthbound retooling that serves as something of a prequel to the original. Thankfully, the Burton version and its hogwash of an ending have been rendered null and void. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" features mostly awesome state-of-the-art special effects (overly fluid body movements are still the one area that have still gone unperfected) and a story with some provocative thematic heft to it. Attention-deficient viewers may grumble that it takes too long to get going as an expected action-oriented summer blockbuster, but the rest of audiences should appreciate the building of characters and ideas up front. It's not consistently on the smoothest of footing and the screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver (2007's "The Relic") relies on the occasional convenience to move things forward, but the film works as a whole when all is said and done.
In the near future at San Francisco's fictional bio-medical company Genesys, Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) is in the animal-testing phase on a new drug called ALZ-112 that may have the power to regenerate brain cells. When a freak incident occurs with the chimp they had been testing, Will's boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) shuts down the study. The amazing response of the drug, however, lives on in a newborn offspring that Will takes home to stay with him and his Alzheimer's-afflicted father Charles (John Lithgow). Named Caesar, the chimp grows up with unmistakable heightened intelligence and a natural curiosity for the outside world. He also is fiercely protective of Will and Charles, his violent acting-out cause enough to get him put into a shady primate shelter owned by John Landon (Brian Cox). Mistreated and imprisoned for too long, Caesar is about to spearhead an uprising against the humans in charge that, if not stopped, could have catastrophic ramifications on the world.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" has a lot of ground to cover and less than two hours in which to do it. Though it takes a long timesome might say too longfor the apes to fight back against their captors and anyone else they deem as dangerous, the scene-to-scene narrative feels overstuffed and a little rushed. In one scene, Will is bringing baby Caesar home with him after the chimp's mother attacks the facility as a means of protecting her baby. Three years have soon passed, and then another five, all the while Will has begun a long-term relationship with zoo vet Caroline (Freida Pinto) and Caesar has become virtually human in his level of intellect. With Will's dad fading fast from his disease, Will tests the drug out on him and is delighted to see his debilitating symptoms fade. It is all too good to be true, unfortunately, and Charles once more starts regressing, his disorder too advanced to have been permanently cured. All of this occurs in the first half, and there is plenty more, too, including the fateful decision to leave Caesar at the primate shelter.
The bittersweet bond between man and ape is where the film gets its heart, the computer-generated character of Caesar (aided by the exceptional performance-capture work of Andy Serkis) so detailed and life-like that one views him as every bit as real as the live-action actors. He sees himself as deserving of being treated as an equal with the humans around him because that is all he's known. When faced with other animals and the concept of "pets," Caesar experiences a rude awakening made all the more distressing by the humiliating way heand his fellow apesare treated by the shelter. He ultimately feels deceived and lied to, paving the way for the extreme measures of the third act. The immeasurable contributions of Andy Serkis, as Caesar, should not be downplayed; it's a passionate, committed, wholly believable performance. That last attribute cannot be easy when you are a man asked to portray an animaland sell it.
Once the apes escape captivity and begin to wreak havoc on the city of San Francisco, the movie engrossingly moves full-throttle toward a climactic showdown on a fog-enshrouded Golden Gate Bridge. Director Rupert Wyatt and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (2010's "The Last Airbender
") handle the action cohesively and with a fine level of suspense. Underneath the dazzlement is a cautionary parable on the dangers of discrimination and repression that feels natural and topical rather than shoehorned in. With the exception of Andy Serkis, who is central to the goings-on, the other actors eventually get lost in the shuffle, director Wyatt not sure what to do with them. James Franco (2010's "127 Hours
") ably portrays scientist Will Rodman, bringing command to a role one wouldn't immediately think of the sleepy-eyed Franco as being right for. The longer the film goes on, though, the less he has to do. Freida Pinto (2008's "Slumdog Millionaire
") is wasted as Caroline, a needless love interest who could have been excised completely without any bearing on the story. When she only finds out about where Caesar has come from and the reason for his advanced intelligence five years into her relationship with Will, it's a tough pill to swallow. Did she, an animal specialist, never sense Caesar was smarter than the average chimp, and did the topic of his past fail to ever come up between her and Will before this? John Lithgow (2010's "Leap Year
") is touching as Will's father Charles even when his subplot turns into "Awakenings"-lite, while Brian Cox (2010's "Red
") and Tom Felton (2011's "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
") are strictly one-note as an abusive father-son duo responsible for the ill treatment of the apes at the shelter.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" culminates in an exchange between Will and Caesar that would be majestic and moving were it not so darkly suggestive. A smile that Franco flashes at the end doesn't make sense considering what dire trouble the planet is now in. With the grim additional onslaught of a deadly airborne virus waiting in the wings, the film plays like a foreboding fairy-tale-cum-tragedy. Might viewers be turned off by such a potentially hopeless finale, or will it leave them eagerly awaiting what a possible sequel might hold? No matter, the picture should be commended for following the apocalyptic plot threads to their logical destination. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" boasts enough skill and showmanship to act as a respectable franchise upstart if the studio is inclined to do so. If not, well, at least there's the reassurance that this is an all-around superior effort to 2001's "Planet of the Apes