Monkey business

I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee.

I hate every ape I see, from chimpan-A to chimpanzee.

Rated 4.0

Quite a few movie franchises have gotten “reboots” in recent years with varying degrees of success. While films like A Nightmare on Elm Street and Superman Returns didn’t necessarily go over big with the public, Star Trek and Batman Begins breathed new life into former entertainment juggernauts.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes does for the Apes franchise what the new Trek and Batman have done for their respective properties: It makes the prospect of further movies in the franchise something to eagerly anticipate.

I was not a hater of Tim Burton’s Planet of the Apes—I thought he did a great job with the practical makeup, and the story was OK. In retrospect, the film lacked pop somewhat, but it entertained for the most part.

In the original movies, apes became pets after a worldwide disease decimated the dog and cat population. Over a stretch of time, apes simply became smarter hanging around with humans and doing their dishes. They eventually said “Slavery sucks!” and took over the world.

In Rupert Wyatt’s new film, James Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist—no astronauts in this one—who is testing on chimps a drug to cure Alzheimer’s. The drug, as it turns out, not only has the ability to repair a damaged brain, but also makes it stronger and smarter.

After a chimp freaks out, Will’s experiment is suspended, and all of the test chimps are ordered put down. Franco sneaks one baby out of the facility, the offspring of a chimp who was taking the drug.

That chimp turns out to be Caesar, wonderfully played by Andy Serkis through motion capture CGI. Serkis, of course, is no stranger to the technology, having done Gollum and King Kong in the past. Through extraordinary help from Weta, the folks who make Peter Jackson’s special effects-laden films come to life, Serkis gives one of the summer’s more memorable performances.

The keyword for Serkis’ performance here would be “expressive.” Caesar—played memorably by Roddy McDowell in Conquest of the Battle of the Apes and Battle for the Planet of the Apes—alternately breaks your heart and scares the crap out of you. Watching him progress from a joyful, carefree, extremely intelligent chimp into a disgruntled prisoner who has had enough of humans is a riveting experience.

Franco, who publicly chastised the film a couple of weeks ago and predicted critics would hate it, was very wrong about himself and the CGI creations. He’s very good in this movie, lending the film instant credibility as a sensitive scientist who is also undeniably vain and reckless. His Will Rodman is a nice, well-meaning fellow who just happens to be the root cause of the ape apocalypse.

The film takes good, nasty shots at American corporations—no surprises there—and the horrors of animal testing and animal captivity (so does the recently released documentary Project Nim, about an actual chimp). Not every chimp in captivity is being cared for by the likes of Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton of Harry Potter fame plays a nasty animal keeper), but logic dictates that primates are generally better off in the wild than sitting in cages waiting to be blasted with experimental drugs.

The movie has a lot of CGI, and not every shot is picture perfect. Another few months of intense work could’ve sharpened a few edges, not that anything in Rise looks supremely bad. It’s just that some moments have Caesar and the like integrating marvelously with human actors, while others simply look animated and slightly fake.

So, if Apes purists out there think the franchise will lose its edge with the loss of humans playing apes under pounds of makeup, fret not. This new take on the series provides some serious new spark and opens the door to a wide range of possibilities.

The purists might grouse a bit, but in this case of Rise of the Planet of the Apes—a lot of “ofs,” I know—the purists should just shut their pie-holes. The movie is good, proving that Apes movies don’t require massive prosthetics or Charlton Heston.