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Some old potion is served up in a reasonably spiffy new bottle in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Resurrecting a lucrative franchise for another go-round 43 years after Charlton Heston first found himself on the short end of the evolutionary pyramid, Fox has wisely steered clear of attempting another remake of the original, which was bungled so badly by Tim Burton a decade back, settling instead on a contemporary scientific yarn that serves as a plausible prequel to all the other films. Strong action, special effects and by far the most credible ape “performances” yet seen will spell box office to inspire chest-thumping in all markets.
Making the most of special effects breakthroughs pioneered on Avatar as well as on the extensive ape performance background of Andy “King Kong” Serkis, Rise closes the door on the makeup-and-hairpiece monkeyshines of the original Apes sequels once and for all. The success of the new film pivots on viewer belief that the genetically advanced primates here possess emotional and cranial capacities similar to those of humans; so completely is this achieved that audiences will be cheering for these sensitive creatures as they take revenge on their tormentors by launching an unusually ambitious animal-liberation movement.
Of course, it helps tip the balance when the humans on display are as thoroughly dull and/or venal as they are here. The man who makes everything possible is genetic scientist Will Rodman (James Franco), who after more than five years of research experiences a breakthrough with a gene therapy drug called AOZ-112. This cocktail not only pushes one young chimp to incredible new thresholds of smarts and ability, it also has the side effect of reversing the dementia of Will’s out-of-it father (John Lithgow). From the point of view of Will’s greedy boss (David Oyelowo), this is a potential goldmine.
But Dad’s Alzheimer’s regresses. And then the chimp, named Caesar, grows into a rough, rebellious, malcontented adolescent, very strong and hard to control; more than any other chimp in history, this one truly has a mind of its own. Eventually, Caesar must leave home for a simian detention facility staffed by a bunch of sadists led by Draco Malfoy himself (or at least the actor who played him in the Harry Potter films, Tom Felton). Things get nasty enough to spark a prison riot, which soon turns into an outright rebellion seemingly joined by the entire ape population of the San Francisco Bay Area.
The story arc hammered out by writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver is solid, and director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) propels it at an accelerating but unmanic pace, leading to an action climax on, above and under the Golden Gate Bridge that proves perfectly satisfying. Unsurprisingly, the final shot duly foreshadows a sequel, which could be considerably hairier than this first installment falls flat is with the human element.
Will is a scientist and his sweetheart Caroline (Freida Pinto) is a vet, so why not make them brainy, opinionated, somewhat eccentric individuals with interesting takes on the extraordinary events their work triggers? Let them argue, debate and be inspired and/or appalled by it all, rather than just ride on their looks. Franco has some nice moments with Lithgow, himself just fine, but otherwise is mostly in fierce register as he contends with adversaries both at work and at the detention center. Pinto looks more beautiful than ever but is playing the most boringly decorous tag-along girlfriend seen onscreen in years.
Another questionable element is the extent of the apes’ conversational abilities. When Caesar at last utters his first word, it’s undeniably a big moment. But the most effective simian interchanges are physical rather than verbal, so it will be a tricky tightrope to walk — if the series continues, which it likely will — to move the apes into full speech in a credible way.
Serkis invests Caesar with a full measure of personality through the indelibly human look in his eyes. The ape cast is rounded out not only by chimps but by a memorable gorilla and orangutan, both of them fine supporting players. The special effects are most convincing and involving, particularly as the apes move through San Francisco and across the bridge in their attempt to take over George Lucas territory up north.
Opens: August 5 (Fox)
Production: Chernin Entertainment
Cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Andy Serkis, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlitt
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Screenwriters: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Executive producer: Thomas M. Hammel
Director of photography: Andrew Lesnie
Production designer: Claude Pare
Costume Designer: Renee April
Editors: Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt
Music: Patrick Doyle
Senior special effects supervisor: Joe Letteri
Visual effects supervisor: Dan Lemmon
PG-13 rating, 104 minutes
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