A prequel to the old “Planet of the Apes” franchise, which began with the 1968 Charlton Heston movie and then spawned four progressively awful sequels between 1969 and 1973, two television series (a live-action one in 1974 and an animated version the following year, neither of much interest), and three relatively short-lived comic runs (1974-77, 1990-92 and 2001), hardly seems a consequential idea. After all, even Tim Burton came in second-best with his 2001 remake of the original.
Given all that, it’s remarkable that “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” works as well as it does. It’s hobbled, of course, by the same problem that George Lucas faced with his second “Star Wars” trilogy—the backstory was laid out pretty fully in the previous installments, so there really aren’t any surprises in store. We already know that a chimp named Caesar was the first simian to speak, and led the rebellion that challenged, and eventually toppled, human domination on earth. So the question is simply whether the makers can do much to flesh out the tale and give it panache.
They do, thanks to a few important factors. One is, of course, the effects, which prove more than equal to the task of putting onscreen chimps, apes and orangutans that are convincingly lifelike while acting en masse and going through complicated maneuvers with live-action performers. That’s due not only to the vast improvement in the motion-capture technology employed, but to Andy Serkis, who again—after his astonishing work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”—brings such nuance to Caesar that you can actually believe in the character.
A second is the skill of director Rupert Wyatt who, while fashioning, in conjunction with the effects crew and ace cinematographer Andrew Lesnie, plenty of rip-roaring action sequences, also gives some depth to the quieter moments. And that’s due not only to the expressive quality of the CGI Caesar (and the other assorted monkeys), but to actors who play the material without winking at the audience.
The major figure in that respect is James Franco as Will Rodman, the brilliant researcher who invents a serum designed to aid in the treatment of human brain disorders (most notably Alzheimers) but, when tested on animals, results in the mental evolution of the subjects, most notably Caesar’s mother. When her attempt to protect her newborn leads to a rampage that closes down the project, Rodman rescues the infant chimp and raises it at his home. Franco’s very good as a modern-day Frankenstein (at one point his love interest, vet Caroline Aranha played by Freida Pinto, actually intones the immortal observation that some things aren’t meant to be tampered with).
But Franco gets considerable support not only from the computer-generated monkeys but from John Lithgow, as his Alzheimers-afflicted father on whom he tests the serum. Lithgow endows the character with genuine pathos. (Buffs will point out that he’d earlier covered similar effects ground—though with far less downbeat a mood—in “Harry and the Hendersons.”) And Brian Cox exudes a deceptive sense of empathy as the duplicitous chief of a primate rescue center where Caesar is eventually installed. Otherwise, unfortunately, the actors bring less to the table. Pinto is certainly attractive, but is stuck with little more to do but look concerned and supportive. David Hewlett overacts badly as Rodman’s nasty neighbor, whose hostility leads to Caesar’s incarceration. Tyler Labine repeats the same slacker character he’s done before as Will’s loyal assistant, while David Oyelowo is all super-efficient manager as Rodman’s bottom-line boss. And Tom Felton just does his “Harry Potter” villainous shtick again as Cox’s son, the surly attendant who whose cruelty toward Caesar and the other primates sparks the animals’ revolt—a stock role.
Felton does, however, get to deliver the one line in the picture that will definitely draw a big laugh from the audience—an obvious homage to its predecessor that, along with a brief shot of a television screen, represents about the only intentionally funny moments in the picture. Otherwise “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is played very straight. In that respect it’s similar to “Cowboys & Aliens,” which, contrary to the expectations the title might raise, treats both its western and sci-fi elements very seriously. Once again you should go expecting not a send-up but a full-bore action picture as earnest in its way as the original “Planet” was back in 1968. And Patrick Doyle’s music score abets that mood.
If you’re willing to go along with that approach—and to root for the simians that will ultimately dethrone your own species—you’ll find this a tight, beautifully made if rather predictable background yarn—better, in fact, than “The Phantom Menace” and its two companions, which were also sumptuously produced but spun out their equally preordained tale to brutally turgid lengths—that does the obvious well even if it lacks the imagination to go beyond it. I must confess that I kept hoping that somewhere along the way a black monolith would have made an appearance, even if only via a “2001” poster on somebody’s wall. (In fact, a shot from “The Dawn of Man” on that television screen would have been a wittier choice.) But it’s certainly better than any installment in the franchise since the 1968 original—including Burton’s 2001 reboot.