Forget the monkey suits and makeup that were hallmarks of the six Planet of the Apes movies (and the TV series) made between 1968 and 2001. Every primate in this terrific back-to-the-beginning reboot is a computer-animated creation based on Avatar-style motion-capture technology.
The resulting characters look so remarkably real and detailed in medium and close-up settings that they are completely convincing. Fast-moving CGI simians in long-shot scenes (such as racing up redwoods) sometimes appear “mass-less,” but that’s a trivial complaint.
Director Rupert Wyatt, who wrote and directed 2009’s outstanding but criminally overlooked The Escapist, does a remarkable job of balancing the dramatic, SF and action/adventure elements. Although there are allusions to a few incidents from the earlier movies, Rise of the Planet of the Apes departs enough from the first five’s shaky continuity that it creates a distinctly different timeline. (Tim Burton’s 2001 Planet of the Apes remake also ignored the history established in previous installments.)
James Franco is Will Rodman, a researcher with a personal stake in discovering an Alzheimer’s cure because his father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease. Although Will’s project is shut down when a test-subject chimpanzee becomes violent and is killed, her outburst had nothing to do with the drug. She merely was protecting her newborn, which Will secretly takes home to raise.
Will’s other career-threatening transgression involves dosing his father with the untested drug. Dad gets better overnight. And the baby chimp Caesar, whose genetic makeup was altered when the drug passed to him from his mother, begins developing intelligence faster than a human baby would.
Don’t be misled by the thoughtful family aspects of the movie’s first half. The screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver features massive amounts of monkey mayhem later, including a monumental melee on the Golden Gate Bridge.
Caesar’s face and gestures are so expressive that his frustration, sadness, joy and rage seem all too human. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for his plight, or to understand the change in his personality that results from his later mistreatment. Legendary motion-capture actor Andy Serkis (best known as Gollum from the Lord of the Rings trilogy) was the animators’ source for Caesar’s expressions and movements.
Tom Felton (aka Harry Potter‘s Draco Malfoy), one of Caesar’s tormentors when he is imprisoned, has the honor of delivering a line that every Apes aficionado knows by heart. Freida Pinto is Will’s veterinarian love interest, and Brian Cox (star of The Escapist) runs the primate shelter.
Make no mistake, even this classy new Apes installment doesn’t “rise” to the level of complete credibility. It’s hard to believe Will could keep Caesar a secret from his neighbors for three years. The San Francisco authorities send only one police helicopter to back up cops on the ground dealing with a potentially apocalyptic urban overrun. Will seemingly manages to avoid pursuit or capture even while driving what should be a rather conspicuous stolen police car, and an assistant with life-threatening news apparently forgets how to use a telephone or e-mail.
The mere presence of noble Caesar here outweighs any of those concerns. The wearily wise but resolutely self-assured look on his face when he realizes he must take control of his own destiny is a moment of genuine movie magic. Hail Caesar, hail Serkis and hail the talents at Weta Digital for brilliantly bringing this unforgettable character to life.
Also: Be sure to stay through the end credits, or you will miss the movie’s actual ending.