Rise of the Planet of the Apes can be considered apart from its cinematic forebearers, I think. Possibly you recall them: Planet of the Apes, the provocative 1968 monkey-suit classic, with Charlton Heston and Roddy McDowall; that film's four silly sequels; and Tim Burton's inconsequential 2001 remake of the original movie. This latest Apes is a prequel—no shuddering, please—and it does a good job of setting up a whole new franchise. The visual effects, by Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, are a substantial advance in that field; and the picture's extraordinary star turn by Andy Serkis, already renowned for bringing Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings films, raises once again the question of why a superb motion-captured performance isn't eligible for an Oscar.
Serkis is the best reason to see the movie. Playing the lead ape beneath a seductively persuasive digital simian overlay, he conveys exuberance, disappointment, despair and menace with all the emotional shadowing that might normally be expected of an actor unencumbered by computer tracking. It's a wondrous accomplishment.
The serviceable script, by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, starts with genetic researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) conducting experiments with a new serum that has shown promise of being a cure for Alzheimer's—the dementia with which Will's father (John Lithgow) happens to be afflicted. The testing program is being funded by a genetics outfit run by a standard corporate greedhead named Jacobs (David Oyelowo). The test subjects, of course, are chimpanzees. The experiments go well until something awful happens, as you know it must, and Jacobs orders all of the test chimps destroyed. But a kindly chimp minder (Tyler Labine) saves one of the animals—a newborn—and gives it to Will for safekeeping. Will takes the hairy tyke home and names it Caesar (played by Serkis even at this childlike stage of the character's development).
The story advances with some invention, if little in the way of real surprise. We see that Caesar has inherited serum-heightened brain function from his late test-chimp mother. He becomes adept at sign language, among other things. Meanwhile, Will is administering the serum to his dad, and it works wonders—for a while. Then something else awful happens, and Will is forced to turn Caesar in to an animal pound which apparently specializes in apes. The place is a dank, oppressive prison, overseen by a sadistic warder named Dodge (Tom Felton, deploying the same malevolent sneer he used as Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films). Dodge addresses his miserable charges with lines like "stupid monkey" and "you damn dirty ape," and we very soon feel a jailbreak coming on.
Apart from cliché characters like Dodge and Oyelowo's Jacobs, Will also has a girlfriend (Freida Pinto) whose presence in the story is entirely tacked-on. (She exists to utter lines like "This is wrong, Will," and not much else.) But Franco brings his characteristic warm concern to the proceedings (his Will is essentially an observer of the film's several alarming events); and Serkis, as I say, gives a terrific performance, convincing us of Caesar's sentient pre-humanity even when the script compels him to converse with less-elevated apes in voiceless subtitles.
As for the groundbreaking visual effects, they allow the situating of large numbers of rampaging mo-capped apes in practical locations (among them, the Golden Gate Bridge) in broad daylight, with little blurry-cam cheating. You marvel at the complex artistry of these sequences even when they go on a bit too long.
The movie is high-level pulp of a more-than-usually entertaining sort. And its final scenes, which naturally prefigure at least one sequel, are intriguing—we might actually want to see what else could be done with this revamped tale. Unfortunately, any further iterations would logically have to lead us, somewhere down the road, to yet another rehash of the original Planet of the Apes. And you wonder how many people, at this late date, might really want to see that again. Which is not to say they couldn't take this one for what it is—big-budget summer sci-fi—and have a perfectly fine time.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be published in November by St. Martin's Press.