The summer blockbuster season ends with a nice surprise. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a prequel of sorts that indeed rises to the lofty expectations of those who remember the classic 1968 original film, yet can also win over those who scorned Tim Burton’s imperfect but entertaining 2001 “re-imagined” version.
While the story is well told, with good pacing and excellent actors on board, the most valuable primate award should go to Andy Serkis. With the help of the folks at Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital, Serkis gives the central character “Caesar” astonishingly human-like qualities of tenderness and when necessary, animalistic terror.
Scientist Will Rodman (a credibly brainy but sympathetic James Franco) has been working on an Alzheimer’s cure for over five years. When a test patient chimpanzee initially shows progress but subsequently causes a major fracas in the lab, the project is shelved. Will decides to bring home a baby chimp, naming him Caesar (he must have seen “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”), to continue the experiments that he also conducts on his affected Father (John Lithgow). It’s only a matter of time before the formula will run its course and scientific arrogance will lead to regrettable consequences.
“Rise” could have easily devolved into formulaic inanity. But British director Rupert Wyatt skillfully weaves the three chapters of the film with the right amounts of action and emotion. Wyatt deftly orchestrates an origin story where we watch baby Caesar grow up, become incarcerated in a primate sanctuary where he unites his fellow apes, and unleash mayhem as the apes escape and rebel. There are nice nods to the original (some more obvious than others), including a credible implication linking the two films.
A few characters seem underused (especially “Slumdog Millionaire’s” Freida Pinto), while others like cruel guard Tom Felton (a.k.a. Draco Malfoy) and David Oyelowo as Will’s boss seem predictable. But the always-reliable Brian Cox and the aforementioned Lithgow balance things out.
The film doesn’t try to take on the quasi-political undertones of the 1968 original, but it makes its own case as a personalized science fiction drama. Caesar attempts to find his place in a confusing world where he is treated like a beloved pet yet feels compelled by the natural instincts of freedom in the wild.
Back in 1968 the makeup effects of the original (which for the love of everything simian is still a must-see for those who haven’t) were groundbreaking and garnered Oscars. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” breaks ground in similar ways, blurring the lines between real life animals and performance capture animatronics.
It may not be a classic in its own right but as a prequel and terrific summer entertainment it’s more fun than a barrel of…
Well, you know.
Rated PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence.