Compare Rise of the Planet of the Apes to its “damn dirty ape” 1968 predecessor if you must – the more instructive comparison might be to something like 2008’s The Wrestler. That’s not because of Mickey Rourke’s guttural grunting and jungle-overgrowth hairdo, but because like The Wrestler, Rise overcomes its general formulaic blandness thanks to one utterly magnetic performance at its heart.
And to be clear, I’m not talking about the film’s supposed lead, James “Probably-Stoned-While-Hosting-The-Oscars” Franco. Franco, and indeed the entire cast of regular old human actors here, is wallpaper here, as is the B-movie plot, where an idealistic scientist (Franco) and craven corporate bosses play god and accidentally unleash the apocalypse in the form of genetically-enhanced hyper-intelligent banana-lovers. But the film does have an interesting spin on that old set-up – this is the rare creature feature that places most of its sympathies with the creature.
The real protagonist here is Caesar, the genius-IQ chimpanzee who starts out as Franco’s surrogate son and ends up as an Ape Guevara. Caesar represents the latest and greatest incarnation of the motion-capture CGI technology that produced Avatar‘s aliens, and the motion-captured actor behind the ape is Andy Serkis, who pioneered the technology/artform by playing Gollum of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake. Serkis here has been tasked with depicting the transformation from gentle animal to general in entirely non-verbal terms, and he succeeds wildly. With facial expressions alone, Serkis manages to convey Caesar’s man-or-animal existential crisis during his youth, and things really take off when Caesar is jailed with his simian brethren and the film (save for a few subtitled cop-out moments) becomes a wordless prison break drama, with Caesar organizing his troops with steely Steve McQueen resolve.
And when those troops go into action, director Rupert Wyatt orchestrates some exhilarating and novel sequences out of the mayhem. The climax here, for example, involves a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, which is certainly smaller in scale than, say, the wholesale destruction of Chicago in Transformers 3. But where Michael Bay’s focus was primarily on blowing up bigger things in louder ways, Wyatt’s climax is about battle tactics and strategy – there’s plenty of id-satisfying explosions and eye-popping CGI realism, but there’s an abiding intelligence that also keeps your brain occupied.
There certainly could have been more for your brain, though – compared to the original film’s race and nuclear war allegorizing, this film’s PETA-endorsed (literally) animal-rights pleading seems kind of thin. In a year where revolutions have been so frequent, you do wish that the film spent more time on the birth-of-a-movement segments instead of shuttling Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, and Tom Felton (essentially reprising his Harry Potter role as Draco Malfoy) through thankless time-wasters of roles.
But then I suppose we should be thankful that this movie, with that soulful lead performance and smart action storytelling, is any good at all – quality sequel/prequel-remakes are rare enough as it is, and Twentieth Century Fox’s notably slim marketing push and August release date (this month is traditionally a dumping ground for lower quality mass-market product) weren’t exactly encouraging. But that looks to have been good old studio myopia – along with Captain America and the final Harry Potter movie, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of the summer’s most engaging blockbusters.