A curious chance for humans to revel in their own destruction, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” makes for an impressive, if predictably downbeat prequel to a franchise famous for unhappy endings. Thanks to stunning advances in performance capture technology, director Rupert Wyatt successfully ditches the cumbersome makeup appliances of past chapters, building the story around a cast of photoreal CG simians convincing enough to identify with as characters, rather than just special effects. Though markedly better than 2001’s Tim Burton reboot, this apocalyptic entry has a trickier road ahead, relying on positive buzz and sheer spectacle to win over skeptical auds.
When the first “Planet of the Apes” movie bowed in 1968, Fox’s cynical projection of man’s future came riding on a wave of nuclear alarmism, arriving just as the Civil Rights movement was in full swing. The political context underlined the allegorical power of the Pierre Boulle novel that inspired it, raising the question as to whether somewhere in the universe a species more responsible than Man might exist.
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Today, everyone knows the twist — that the topsy-turvy world the astronauts have returned to was Earth all along — which is the key element screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver have carried over from the earlier movies, apart from a couple lines recycled for inside-joke appeal (e.g., “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”). While the film’s stock characters and generic story components don’t feel especially fresh, the technical elements are so cutting edge that the film could not have existed in such polished form before now.
Working with actor Andy Serkis and Weta Digital, Wyatt advances the art of motion capture to the point that all of the film’s key animal characters — which include dozens of chimps, a sage old orangutan and one incredibly temperamental gorilla — demonstrate incredibly detailed personalities that no trained monkey or ape-suited actor possibly could have conveyed.
The real triumph is Caesar, who will grow up to become the Che Guevara of chimps over the course of the film. So nuanced and specific is Serkis’ performance that his digital avatar shows far greater emotional range than any of his human co-stars, even without the aid of dialogue, a coup without which the film’s central leap of faith — that auds would connect so deeply with Caesar they wouldn’t mind witnessing the annihilation of their own species — could have been a disastrous gamble.
Created in the same downer spirit as the recent “Terminator” prequels, “Rise” rewrites “Apes” lore to provide an alternate history for mankind’s extinction, brought about by genetic testing rather than atomic irresponsibility.
On the live-action side, a charismatic James Franco plays Will Rodman, a San Francisco research scientist with a personal stake in trying to find the cure for Alzheimer’s. His father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease, and Will thinks he’s found a cure in a serum that his employer, Gen-Sys, has been testing on chimpanzees. When one of the test subjects goes ape-wild, the company shuts down the program, forcing Will to violate two major ethical rules: First he takes home the infant Caesar, who has been treated with the formula, and then he carries on testing the unapproved drug on his own dad.
In the background, a rocket takes off aimed for Mars, ostensibly carrying the series’ Charlton Heston/Mark Wahlberg character onboard, while events on Earth veer toward the cataclysmic. Considering how explicit earlier “Apes” installments were about their politics, “Rise” seems more than a little confused about the statement it wants to make. The film lets Will off the hook for engineering a deadly virus with the potential to wipe out mankind, while focusing blame on his Wall Street-minded boss (David Oyelowo), whose greed allows the animal testing to continue.
The story is angled such that we identify with Caesar and view every human character except those directly invested in his well-being — namely Will, his father and veterinarian girlfriend (Freida Pinto) — as deserving of the fate that awaits them. Most loathsome are the cruel and unusual animal-control officers (Brian Cox and Tom Felton) who tear Caesar away from his human family, turning “Rise” into a sort of simian “Shawshank Redemption” as the chimp plots his escape (which might explain why “The Escapist’s” Wyatt got the directing gig).
Patrick Doyle’s insistent score clearly sympathizes with the pic’s climactic ape uprising, memorably staged on the Golden Gate Bridge. “Rise” was made at considerable expense, and the results shows at all levels of the production, with few shortcuts taken in scenes that combine CG and live-action elements.