Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)
110 min., rated PG-13.
From the classic 1968 "Planet of the Apes" to its musical parody in an episode of "The Simpsons," followed by Tim Burton's lifeless 2001 "re-imagining," it's no spoiler that the planet in question is Earth. Though technically a prequel, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is something of a reboot. It might have too many prepositions in its title, but United Kingdom director Rupert Wyatt elevates what could have well been just another effects-laden summer movie.
James Franco plays Will Rodman, a genetics researcher at a San Francisco-based bio-medical company who's testing a new drug called ALZ-112 on apes that could cure Alzheimer's. It's for personal reasons: His father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from the affliction. When one of the test chimps shows aggressive behavior and gets put down, the whole project goes down too by Will's money-driven boss (David Oyelowo). Then Will finds himself sneaking home the test subject's baby offspring. ("Don't get attached," Will is told, but we know how that will go.) Named Caesar (played by human Andy Serkis), the primate becomes part of the Rodman family, wearing clothes, learning sign language, and having a curiosity for the outside world. Over the years, the once-playful ape grows to have a heightened intelligence with the new drug in him, just as Will's dad is showing signs of improvement. A violent act of protecting Charles puts Caesar into a primate shelter, run by a shady caretaker (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son (Tom Felton, or Draco Malfoy from the "Harry Potter" movies). Led by Caesar, the apes revolutionalize an uprising against their human captors and that's when things start to get hairy for the planet.
The bulk of the reason "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" works so well goes to Andy Serkis's performance-capture technique and the effects team. They deserve a pat on the back, or maybe even an Oscar. As he did with Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" series and King Kong of Peter Jackson's version, Serkis has the uncanny ability to bring a CGI animal to wondrously realized life. Playing a tortured simian, Serkis's circus act is truly astonishing, empathetic, and even touching that you are rooting for the apes in this one. Hail Caesar!
Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's screenplay is stripped-down without being dumb but could've used some tweaks. The first half of the film has an oddly rushed pace, as eight years' worth of filler have to pass before the apes fight back against their experimenters and abusers. Also, there are a few plot conveniences to push the plot along and ultimately set up the film for what was already the 1968 original or perhaps a sequel. Part of the fun are several cute in-jokes that feel playfully placed (Oh look, it's Charlton Heston on the telly!), but only the geekiest of "Apes" fans will recognize them. Director Wyatt keeps the pacing swift and brings more awe, wonder, and grandeur than volume to the big apes-run-amok set piece that we're all waiting for. First a prison break and then an unleashing of hell on the Golden Gate Bridge, the whole climactic sequence is expertly executed and appropriately bananas.
Since it is a "Planet of the Apes" movie—the seventh if you're actually counting—it's all about the "damned dirty apes" and their monkey business, leaving most of the Homo sapiens underwritten and unmoving. Franco is fine as Will, but seems to be phoning in this performance rather than showing much commitment beyond just showing up. Freida Pinto has very little of interest to do as Caroline, a veterinarian/the obligatory love interest who's apparently been in a five-year relationship with Will. Of the human characters, Lithgow is the most affecting. Cox and Felton are strictly cardboard villains, but are so good at playing cruel, sneering bullies that it's hard to think of them not being typecast. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is not thought-provoking science fiction, but this is a fun, unpretentious B-movie that doesn't have time for monkeying around with lofty allegory or science. Don't be surprised if you become a member of PETA afterwards.