Movie review: ‘Planet of the Apes’ reboot – primates seem real this time
Since the days when human captive Charlton Heston railed against those “damned dirty apes” and Roddy McDowell and Kim Hunter walked around upright in rubber masks and monkey suits in 1968’s “Planet of the Apes,” CGI technology has evolved by leaps and bounds.
And so the chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans that populate “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” the surprisingly smart and emotionally resonant attempt to reboot the fallow franchise based on Pierre Boulle’s 1963 sci-fi novel, are indeed a gnarly, frighteningly feral and hyper-realistic bunch.
The original “Planet” (widely considered a cult classic with one of cinema’s great climactic scenes) and its four uneven sequels – plus Tim Burton’s lackluster 2001 remake – all demanded a rigorous suspension of disbelief by audiences. To accept the notion of talking apes, to buy into the upside-down world where simians dominated humans and to look past the mock monkey suits meant moviegoers had so subscribe to a pretty far-out “what if” concept.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is far more grounded in realism and a kind of visual verisimilitude that springs from cutting-edge, performance-capture technology developed for James Cameron’s “Avatar” and that here produces apes that are breathtakingly realistic and emotive.
That realism concerns valid issues of biomedical engineering. And that sophisticated computer technology achieves its highest art in the work of Andy Serkis, an actor who specializes in the kind of motion-capture performances that so brilliantly animated the giant ape in 2005’s “King Kong” remake and the Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. In this case, Serkis breaths vivid life, intelligence and roiling passion into Caesar, a gifted lab chimp who falls under the care of human Will Rodman (James Franco), a research scientist for a corporate lab in contemporary San Francisco.
Determined to help his Alzheimer-stricken father (John Lithgow) and develop a chemical cure, Rodman employs chimpanzees in his research at the sterile GenSys lab, where his bioengineering work on the experimental drug ALZ-112 produces one female chimp with astounding cognitive and communicative abilities.
But when the risky testing goes awry and his lab chimps have to be destroyed, Rodman furtively rescues the star chimp’s surviving newborn and takes it home. Dubbing the baby Caesar, Rodman soon discovers that the mother chimp’s gifts have been passed on to her child.
As he raises Caesar like a son and charts his amazing abilities, the scientist struggles to save his fast-fading father. And when Caesar’s protective instincts result in a bloody confrontation with an irate neighbor, the chimp is locked up in the San Bruno Primate Sanctuary, a dank gulag for unwanted primates. There, cruel treatment drives Caesar to marshal his abilities and lead a riotous, – and FX spectacular – ape rebellion and escape across the Golden Gate Bridge (that, by the way, leaves the door wide open for a sequel).
The human performances here are fine if stereotypical: Franco as the scientist who learns the perils of tampering with nature; David Oyelowo as the ruthless, profit-obsessed GenSys exec; Brian Cox as the devious sanctuary owner; Tom Felton (“Harry Potter’s” Draco) as the cruel keeper who mistreats the apes.
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