07 August 2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Caesar the chimp, a CG animal portrayed by Andy Serkis, is shown in a scene from "Rise of the Planet of the Apes."
Their endgame is the planet. But first, San Francisco.

In "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a prequel to the original 1968 "Planet of the Apes," it is there, in the not-too-distant future, that scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is developing a virus for use in gene therapy that not only repairs brain cells but improves them. His goal is a cure for Alzheimer's disease, which has all but taken his father (John Lithgow) from him.

Of course, before it can be used on humans, the virus must be tested. That's where the apes—chimps, specifically—come in. When one test subject goes on a violent rampage, Will's boss (David Oyelowo) attributes it to the virus, ends the program and orders the chimps put down. Only the virus is not to blame. The ornery chimp was protecting a perceived threat to her baby, which she birthed in secret.

Will takes the little simian home, names him Caesar and, to his astonishment, watches him learn at a pace that far outdistances that of a human of the same age, the smarts inherited from his test-subject mother. Will also uses the virus to treat his father, who makes a remarkable recovery.

Eight wonderful years pass before an unfortunate incident with a neighbor leads to Caesar's seizure and placement in a zoo-like facility at which the guards—including one played by Tom Felton, better known as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies—horribly mistreat the animals. They don't know Caesar has the wherewithal to not just fight back but to lead his fellow apes in an organized rebellion.

And so it begins.

Ten years after Tim Burton's remake of the original "Planet of the Apes" (which is not entirely deserving of the bad rap it has gotten), I don't know if anyone was clamoring for a return to the franchise. There probably are other properties that could be revisited for an easier buck, so it's refreshing to find we are back with the apes because there actually is a story worth telling, one that expands and deepens the mythology of the series. Director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have added a new emotional level and an even greater sense of tragedy to the ultimate fate of the planet.

Led by a typically earnest Franco, even if his role is underwritten, the cast acquits itself as well as can be expected. The star, however, is Caesar, portrayed by actor Andy Serkis in a motion-capture performance similar to his work as Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" (2001-03) and the great ape of "King Kong" (2005). It's the best performance in the movie, and Serkis is the clear master of this new breed of acting. Without the benefit of words, he and the expert computer graphic artists create a fully realized character, someone we can empathize with and who is essentially the hero of the picture.

That's the "twist" this time, if you want to call it that. The apes aren't the bad guys; with a couple exceptions, we are.

Sequels will be on the way if this movie makes any money. They will be unnecessary, but let's not think about that now. "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is one of the better movies of the summer.

Greg's Grade: B+

(Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language. 105 minutes.)

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