Rise of the Planet of the Apes is quite the mouthful as far as movie titles go, but the film itself is more fun than most summer blockbusters that came out of Hollywood this year. It features thrilling scenes in which an army of apes clambers across cars on the Golden Gate Bridge knocking down the cops who stand in their way. In one terrific sequence shot in downtown San Francisco, an angry ape yanks out a manhole from the road and tosses it at an oncoming police car. But the piece de resistance is a scene in which a hulking gorilla leaps off the bridge and into a police helicopter hovering close, taking down the chopper with the sheer force of its attack.
The first Planet of the Apes film of 1968 starring Charlton Heston is considered a cinematic benchmark that spawned five movie sequels and an animated TV series. While this new film has been described alternately as a reboot of the franchise and a prequel to the first film, truth is it works just fine as a stand-alone movie.
Set in the present day, the film stars James Franco as Will Rodman, a genetic scientist working hard to find a cure for Alzheimer’s so he can help his sick father (John Lithgow). He thinks he’s found the perfect treatment when he tests a new drug on a chimpanzee that responds immediately, showing a rapid increase in its IQ. Unfortunately the chimp goes beserk soon after, which prompts the medical board to shut down Will’s program, convinced that no breakthrough has been made yet.
Despite orders to kill all monkeys that were being tested, Will finds himself unable to put down a helpless newborn chimp that he ultimately smuggles home. Caesar, who’s got some of that new drug in him, grows up to be a fast learner. Within a few years he’s picked up sign language, he wears human clothes, and has become an intrinsic part of Will’s family. But just when things are going smoothly, an unfortunate incident in the neighborhood results in Caesar being packed off to animal services, where for the first time he encounters others of his kind. It’s not long before Caesar leads the other apes in revolt against their captors, which sets the stage for that thrilling climax at the Golden Gate Bridge.
Intended as a cautionary tale about the repercussions of messing with nature, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as much a reminder that animals, however affectionate or ‘human-like’ they may seem, are unpredictable and can succumb to their primal instincts. Director Rupert Wyatt sets up the story nicely with some touching scenes between Caesar and Will. Andy Serkis, who brought Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings films, plays Caesar here, aided by the same combination of special effects and performance-capture technology. Serkis commits himself to the role so diligently it’s impossible not to be moved by Caesar’s sense of feeling betrayed, his anguish and his confusion.
Not everything works, though. The film slips into sheer silliness during many portions at the animal facility where Caesar is held…like that laughable scene in which Caesar and a circus orangutan communicate through sign, while we’re provided with subtitles to stay in the loop. Freida Pinto who stars as a vet and Will’s subsequent girlfriend has precious little to do, much like Brian Cox who is wasted as the manager of the animal facility where Caesar is held. James Franco too, while he’s convincing as the ape’s parent-figure, fails to rise above his underdeveloped part, going through most scenes with a frown.
But Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes no bones about the fact that ultimately it’s all about the spectacle. The film takes flight in its final 20 minutes when the apes wreak havoc on the city. The CGI and special effects are seamless, and Andy Serkis invests heart into Caesar, delivering the best and only performance of this film.
I’m going with three out of five for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s unabashed silly fun, and a good way to unwind over the weekend.