‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ sets a new standard for troubled franchise

Courtesy photo

Poor James Franco. First, he loses an arm after it got trapped by a boulder; then he hosts the Oscars (only Letterman was a bigger fiasco), and now he stars in a movie that is totally, absolutely, stolen by a character that’s half human, half computer-generated.

What Andy Serkis did with his portrayal of Caesar, the lead ape in this prequel to the original Planet of the Apes (1968), is the stuff of legends. He reduced Franco and Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire), the scientist-veterinarian couple supposedly starring in the film, to mere props and revived the debate over whether actors who perform their roles with the aid of technology should be eligible for an Oscar. My take is a resounding yes. Caesar is the best Caesar ever, and the apes arguably the greatest primates* ever put on film. And, unlike the previous series installments, these apes were mostly mute throughout (a word and a sentence is all Caesar ever utters), transmitting more feeling through subtle hand signals and pantomime than all the apes in all past chapters put together. This is the third time in a row Serkis has achieved CGI mastery, following memorable appearances in The Lord of the Rings (as Gollum) and in the 2005 remake of King Kong. The computers made Caesar look real, but the performance was all his, and I’ve never seen such powerful display of great acting under unconventional circumstances since John Hurt in The Elephant Man (1980).

Filmed in Vancouver but set in San Francisco, the first third of the movie is surprisingly smart, and the editing of Conrad Buff and Mark Goldblatt (who worked on several James Cameron films, including Titanic and Terminator 2) hooks you from the start. The movie quickly sets up how the animals were captured, what was done to them, and how the stage was set for the day when the apes would eventually rule humans as portrayed in the Pierre Boulle 1963 novel and the 1968 film.

Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist who experiments on chimps in order to find a cure for Alzheimer’s. Besides his Hippocratic Oath, he has another, more personal motivation: his father (John Lithgow) is suffering from advanced dementia. Of course, Rodman’s boss couldn’t care less about Alzheimer’s, his captives, or Rodman — all he wants is for the drug to work so he can sell it. And it appears the drug does work. But then, something goes terribly wrong; the subject that had been showing progress (“Bright Eyes”) has to be put down (for all the wrong reasons), the experiments are suspended, and Rodman ends up with a baby chimp (Caesar) at home. Caesar’s growing intelligence inspires Rodman to try the drug on his father, with equally successful results. The experiments are resumed, but too late for Caesar — he’s caged at a primate “sanctuary” and predictably abused by his handler (played with familiar asshole-ness by Tom Felton, Draco Malfoy from Harry Potter, who delivers the line paying homage to the series’ original: “Take your paws off me, you damn dirty ape.”)

If the first part of the movie was entertaining, it’s during the second act with Caesar in captivity that the movie becomes a tour de force that doesn’t let up and more than makes up for earlier flaws, which include a needless romance between Franco and Pinto and a neighbor who takes shit from Caesar repeatedly but never calls the cops or animal control. But it doesn’t matter: Caesar’s metamorphosis at the bogus sanctuary is the start of a cinematic journey that is at times chilling. Caesar’s silhouette standing next to Franco and Pinto, asleep in bed, has the tension of the best horror flicks. Like Cameron’s Aliens (1986), the action never stops; only instead of acid-spitting aliens born of unknown animosities you have apes fighting for a noble cause. And these apes not only scare the hell out of cops but can also act. How can you not love them?

In this, the seventh of the Apes movies, director Rupert Wyatt (2008’s The Escapist) had two challenges: to present a new look for the animals (who previously relied on prosthetic make-up) and give new life to a franchise that was moribund after Tim Burton’s 2001 deservedly panned remake of the ’68 original. He succeeded on both counts, despite a relatively small budget for a blockbuster of $91 million. More than 450 visual-effects artists worked on these primates, and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (Lord of the Rings) assured a stunning look. But make no mistake: it is Serkis’ acting, not the technology, that makes this movie work.

The final scene is a classic — a hooting revolution on Golden Gate Bridge. Us versus them, and you (and PETA) will be rooting for them. While this revolution won’t be televised for some time, it opens today at a theater near you. And I smell sequel all over it.

* Eight references to "monkeys," which apes most certainly are not, were removed from this review.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Dir. Rupert Wyatt; writ. Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver; feat. James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Andy Serkis. (PG-13)

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