When it comes to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, there are two forces at work: Rebooting a classic franchise and a re-imagining of the origins of how that iconic film series got its start. The film triumphs on both counts.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes stars James Franco as a San Francisco scientist who has crafted a wonder drug with the potential to wipe Alzheimer’s off the map. Its use of science as a free-us-from-what-kills-us plot point begins with the simplest of premises and crescendos into a cinematic wonder.
Technically, the new Apes is a marvel. Actors in ape suits have been replaced by performers caught by performance capture technology that are morphed into living, breathing and full of feeling creatures. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a feast for the eyes on so many levels.
Franco gives a subtle performance that efficiently moves from someone who is careen-driven to daddy-driven. His character is caring for his Alzheimer's-stricken father (the always terrific John Lithgow) and then becomes a dad of sorts to a young ape named Caesar.
When his first presentation to the board of the biotech company he works for doesn’t go as planned, he takes home the young chimp with the sole purpose of saving it from being put down -- at least for a few days. Days quickly become years and the development of Caesar is extraordinary. We learn that the wonder drug that was being tested on the chimp’s mother has been passed down through pregnancy. It is at this point that Franco’s character arrives at the crossroads that is caring father figure meets someone who believes they can cure their own father.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes also employs some classic cinematic techniques such as making the big company the bad guy. It is the company’s decision to scrap Franco’s work which causes him to bring home Caesar in the first place. But it is also this corporation that suddenly embraces Franco’s discovery when it appears the drug works.
As a summer movie, there are few flaws to find in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It’s always a treat when a reboot pays homage to its origins as this film does on more than a few occasions. But, therein lies one of the film’s few faults. There are one too many nods to the original film that instead of making the audience smile at the reference, essentially takes us away from the story at hand.
Franco’s supporting actors are solidly cast. Freida Pinto is a colleague who turns into a love interest, but who also serves as the voice of reason at times. Tom Felton, previously seen as the evil Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series, shines as a primate rescue center worker with more than a few prejudices towards his primate guests. Having Felton play a baddie again isn’t necessarily type casting -- yet. Draco was misguided by parental influence where his character in Apes is simply ignorant.
However, the actor who steals the entire movie is Andy Serkis as Caesar. Much as he achieved with his performance capture turn as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings series, the actor manages to take it up a few notches with his role in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. As Pinto, Franco and Felton told Movie Fanatic in our interview, Serkis is a chimpanzee. Yet, the stellar actor he is shines through the nuances of emotional levels he brings to the role of Franco’s pet ape project. His facial expressions alone are worthy of an Oscar nod. Watching Serkis inhabit Caesar is worth the price of admission alone.
When the apes begin their march on man, the audience completely pulls for the primates. They are a fully developed "people" who have been mistreated, misunderstood and turned into miscreants at the hands of a driven scientist and a corporate mentality that is only seeing profits.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes doesn’t ignore the premise of the 1968 film; it enhances it, taking the story of how a few "dirty apes" took over the world and boosting it into the stratosphere.