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“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is not meant to be a prequel to the original “Planet of the Apes” movies (or the 2001 remake); it is a reboot, and the ending that occurs shortly after the credits start rolling assumes that more movies are to come. A brilliant young scientist, Will (James Franco), has concocted a serum named “ALZ-112,” with the “ALZ” prefix referring to its [supposed] ability to cure Alzheimer’s, which is a cause that is important to him because his father (John Lithgow) suffers from it. After an experiment that goes awry, Will sneaks home the infant son of a deceased ape. Will grows to love and care for the “little” guy, Caesar, who displays unusually high intelligence. But when Caesar is sent to a shelter overcrowded with apes, he commences his plans to help his fellow primates escape the prison.
Visual effects have vastly improved since “Planet of the Apes” burst into theatres in 1968, and although the original is beloved by many, as viewed from a 21st-century perspective the effects are incredibly sub-par. Despite their digitalization, the apes in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” appear more life-like than their predecessors. Some time appears to be wasted in the first act on background, though that is to be expected in the first movie of a series, and it is not needlessly long. Andy Serkis, who wowed as Gollum/Smeagol in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, can add yet another outstanding motion-capture performance to his resume. As Caesar, he appears grumpy at times, but his eyes convey a yearning to break free of the constraints of being an ape who is living in a world full of cruel humans. At first glance, he seems to be a pet—Will has to “walk” him on a leash—but it is clear that the relationship between Will and Caesar is much more significant than that. Will, at one point, insists that he is Caesar’s father, although with his advanced brain, Caesar is cognizant of the impossibilities of such a thing.
Why, with his human-equivalent intelligence, would Caesar act as typical primate would? He has a penchant for swinging on trees and chewing on things, which is normal ape behavior. Perhaps writers Nick Jaffa and Amanda Silver assumed that the animals’ natural instincts would not be affected by this increased competence; rather, they are heightened for some reason that is difficult to discern. Additionally, it is difficult to believe that it would have taken eight years for Animal Control to discover that an ape was living illegally with Will, though one can hardly be expected to focus on the logistics and realism of such things in a science fiction movie.
Director Rupert Wyatt deftly builds the tension to the exciting, destruction-filled closing sequences, which we know are inevitable: the title suggests nothing less than an ape revolt. However, I found myself empathizing with the primates, whose histories are so closely linked to ours, because, in particular, Caesar undoubtedly experiences the same emotions that humans do: fear, joy, anger, etc. I am assuming that audience members were meant to comprehend the expressions and glances that occurred between particular apes. I found the sign language between Caesar and an orangutan to be like something out of a spoof movie, and it was not easy to take it seriously.
I found the principal human characters to be fairly uninteresting. Oscar nominee James Franco (“127 Hours”) is likable and somewhat convincing as a knowledgeable and ambitious scientist, and he has a bit of fun spouting technical information, albeit in a slightly monotonous manner. “Slumdog Millionaire” beauty Freida Pinto, who plays Will’s significant other, is just as caring as you would expect her to be. Unfortunately, neither gives a particularly commendable performance, although they are satisfactory for the setting. Tom Felton, best known for playing evil wizard Draco Malfoy in the “Harry Potter” series, is portraying yet another villain; his character works in the ape shelter and takes pleasure in torturing and upsetting the apes, and his father and the shelter manager (Brian Cox) does little to thwart these incidents.
The issues of ethics and animal cruelty are thrust at you, and presented in a way that clearly defines where the writers want you to stand on these issues. But, this film is essentially meant to be an enjoyable, exhilarating science fiction drama, and it succeeds, for the most part.
Rupert Wyatt (director) / Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver (screenplay)
CAST: James Franco … Will Rodman
Freida Pinto … Caroline Aranha
John Lithgow … Charles Rodman
Brian Cox … John Landon
Tom Felton … Dodge Landon
David Oyelowo … Steven Jacobs
Tyler Labine … Robert Franklin
Jamie Harris … Rodney
David Hewlett … Hunsiker