When a guy plays an ape more than once, he’s not typecast, he’s just really good at it. Andy Serkis is a CG-based star once again and once again he is tremendous. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is over-the-top, laughably absurd at times, and a really enjoyable ride.
Full disclosure, I’m a Planet of the Apes fan from the good ol’ days, so my tendency to love a good talking ape movie is my bias. I didn’t even hate the much-maligned Tim Burton remake. And this version didn’t let me down for the most part. I went in expecting a morality message (as is the case with all Apes films) and I got one. But somehow, perhaps due to the sci-fi suspension of disbelief that is required of this film, I didn’t find it to be too schmaltzy. You know the outcome of this film, so you just have to go along with the message to make it a reasonable one.
The sub-plot in which one ape forms a bond with humans that is later dissolved, is the more compelling element here. Caesar (Serkis) is the lead ape who inherits the artificial intelligence of his mother within the confines of a laboratory and later a house with a well-meaning scientist (James Franco) and his ailing father (John Lithgow). He begins as a small ape, lively and adorable, and his interactions with his humans is sincerely touching.
Lithgow brings his A-game as usual as an Alzheimer’s sufferer who temporarily gains his old brain function through the same drug as Caesar. Franco plays it super straight as the scientist with a heart who is forced to give Caesar up and ultimately attempts to reign in Caesar’s attempts at ape liberation. And a de-Draco Malfoyed Tom Felton plays to type as a pretty laughable villain but gets the best/worst line of the movie… and his comeuppance, of course. He also rocks a fair American accent as well. There is also a love interest for Franco’s character (Freida Pinto). She adds virtually nothing and is mostly scenery. But harmless scenery.
There is a lot of pseudo-science happening in this film. They’ve created a miracle drug without any serious trials, regulations, scientific method (or security of inventory, apparently), but that’s hardly a point to nit-pick considering the genre. When we were speculating on how this whole world of apes came to be, the specifics behind the increased intelligence were trumped by the curiosity of how they actually formed a unified group able to take on the human race. And we get enough science to satisfy that element.
It’s the action sequences that really got me going. These newly magic-brained apes are more than just bashing people around. They are communicating in animal pack fashion, choosing not to harm when possible, submitting to a leader, making rational choices. They don’t take over anything in this film, just attempt a life free from the confines of science and animal control. They are generally well-crafted CGI creations, though the size of the chimps is strangely inconsistent. The gorillas and orangutans are fantastic, however, and the eventual uprising is worth the wait.
So, overall thoughts: Is the writing cliched? Yes. Does Caesar actually ride a horse into battle? Yep. Do I care? Nah. Bring on more super simian sequel action!
Note: stay in the theater for a mini-preview of a sequel after the initial credits (or if not a sequel, a bigger explanation of what happens to the human race).