Silver Screen: Rise of the Planet of the Apes ****
Amid a sea of mediocre action movies and superfluous remakes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes turns out to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the summer. While it is something of a relaunch for the series, Rise isn't actually a remake but rather a prequel, although key changes in the conception of the story give it an absolutely distinct feel from other entries in the series.
Will Rodman (James Franco, hilariously unconvincing as a scientist) is working in the latter stages of testing a potential cure for Alzheimer's that regenerates parts of the brain, but a disastrous beta test on a group of chimpanzees fails, causing the head of the research facility (David Oyelowo) to suspend the project. Will has no time to spare-- the disease is rapidly laying waste to his father Charles (John Lithgow), so in addition to abducting the only baby chimp to survive the experiment, Will swipes a batch of his Alzheimer's drug and uses it on his father.
The results for both the man and the baby chimp are extraordinary. Charles returns to his old self, while the chimp, named Caesar, shows seemingly endless potential for continued cognitive development. But after an incident causes Caesar to be taken from his adopted family and placed in a holding facility with other primates, he sees the darker side of human nature and decides to reclaim freedom for himself and his brothers.
The Planet of the Apes series of the 1960s and 1970s had an origin story for the hyper-intelligent apes as well, but it was sorely lacking: The primate revolution is begun by the child of super-intelligent apes from the future who time-traveled back to present-day America, which violates the most basic time-travel movie logic. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, however, provides a significantly more interesting explanation for the rapid evolution of the primates (the apening?).
But Rise of the Planet of the Apes does a lot more than that. The movie's significant recalibration is to recast the apes from people in rubber masks to hyper-intelligent versions of actual chimps, monkeys, and apes, and it changes the entire tenor of the film. It's all accomplished using digital effects-- no actual animals were used in the making of the film-- which director Rupert Wyatt smartly uses not to make a new man/ape hybrid creature, but simply to recreate the natural movements of the animals while giving them intelligent eyes and an otherworldly sense of purpose. The result is a movie different in both tone and theme. The race/slavery metaphor is swapped out for an animal-rights message, while the creatures themselves are simultaneously more frightening and sympathetic.
This, truly, is a triumph of special effects. While so many blockbusters use digital effects to embellish the fantasy, here the goal is to heighten the reality. Will's chimp Caesar develops into an impressively complex character, highly emotive and far more intriguing than his fellow protagonist. (If only Franco, spouting scientist lingo, could be digitally altered to seem as intelligent as the uprising apes.) In this sense Rise of the Planet of the Apes is far more similar to the latter films in the 1970s series in which the audience is compelled to root against their own species-- and it works. The affecting story unfolds at a deliberate pace, with the disaster-movie thrills held in check until the sharply executed climax.
Yes, it's a little self-serious-- just like the original series-- and yes, sometimes it tips into outright silliness. When Caesar is taken from Will's custody, he is placed in what is essentially the primate equivalent of HBO's Oz, a dingy facility run by a cruel warden (Brian Cox, awesome as ever) and staffed by petty tyrants (including Draco Malfoy himself, Tom Felton). Because, you know, every city has a central holding facility for delinquent primates. It's hampered by knowing winks and meta-references to the original film, from a clip of Charlton Heston circa The Ten Commandments to the movie's nadir, in which Felton awkwardly delivers Chuck's most famous line from the 1974 film. But that groaner is immediately followed by the movie's strongest moment, a one-word sentence that roused a wave of gasps from the audience at my screening.
Apes has everything you can ask for in a summer blockbuster-- a couple memorable action setpieces, effects that actually add to the story rather than distracting from it, a plot at least partly grounded in character, and a great lead. But the great lead isn't Franco, it's the computer-generated chimp. Go figure.