The original “Planet of the Apes” movie of 1968, based on the science-fantasy novel by Pierre Boulle, dropped a couple of astronauts onto an unknown planet where evolution had worked out backwards: Humans were feral and hunted by the ruling species, monkeys. It was only the film’s killer reveal at the end — a trick much imitated since — in which you found out the planet was actually a postapocalyptic future Earth; it took three more sequels before “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes” revealed how and why the primates overthrew mankind.
This is where the series reboot “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” chooses to begin. The time is now, the place is San Francisco, and apes are still caged and used in laboratory testing by humans who are indifferent to their suffering. This sense that mankind has had it coming is the most notable holdover from the original, along with a certain ape named Caesar, destined to lead his species to freedom.
The original “Apes” series was taken fairly seriously at the time, but like all special-effects-driven cinema, it looks increasingly camp with age. Tim Burton, much to his regret, zeroed in on this aspect with his rather too arch remake in 2001, which turned out to be quite unpopular, especially among fans of the originals. Director Rupert Wyatt takes the opposite approach with “Rise”: he treats the material seriously, and is fortunate to have a script that allows the viewer to do the same.
James Franco plays Will Rodman, a researcher developing experimental drugs that stimulate neurogenesis in the brain. Like many movie scientists (Jodie Foster in “Contact” or Hugh Jackman in “The Fountain”), he has a very personal interest in doing so: His father, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. A prototype of Will’s drug, ALZ-112, is tested on some lab monkeys, with disastrous results; the program is shut down, but Will takes home an infant chimp to keep as a pet, which his father names Caesar. Over time, it becomes clear that the drug has had a profound effect on Caesar’s intellect, raising it nearly to the level of human reasoning.
Caesar thrives under the care of Will and Charles, but when neighbors judge the fully-grown ape to be a threat, Will has to leave him in a primate sanctuary, which is something like a cross between a zoo and Guantanamo Bay. The degrading treatment radicalizes Caesar, who resolves to break out and take the other apes with him.
Freida Pinto shows up in a largely superfluous love-interest role, while David Oyelowo gets to play the evil Big Pharma CEO who predictably puts profits over safety, but the film belongs to Andy Serkis, who — after his groundbreaking work as Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” and the big ape himself in “King Kong” — is clearly the world’s leading motion-capture thespian by now. His performance here, which was filmed, digitized and used as the basis for animating the entirely digitally constructed chimp, is remarkable, an uncanny shadow of human expression glimpsed under the simian brow.
The animation by New Zealand’s WETA studio (which also did “King Kong,” “Avatar” et al) is shockingly fluid and realistic; fur is notoriously hard to model digitally, but in “Rise” the illusion is near perfect. (Of course, people thought that about the 1968 ape makeup too.) Wyatt builds the film slowly — something rare in popcorn flicks these days — but when it comes to the action, the scenes of the apes “wilding” over Twin Peaks, or their climactic battle with the cops on the Golden Gate Bridge, are handled with epic flair, and quite competently for a director who is coming from a low-budget thriller (2008’s “The Escapist”).
For those who are paying attention, the film is literally loaded with sly references to the original movie: Check out the jigsaw puzzle that Caesar pores over in one scene, or the name of the spacecraft a TV news report tells us is heading to Mars. The deft plotting also ensures that “Rise” will tie right into the story line of “Planet of the Apes,” and a non-Burton remake seems like a no-brainer.
Movie critic Roger Ebert once wrote, “Look at a movie that a lot of people love, and you will find something profound, no matter how silly the film may be.” Apes dethroning mankind on the evolutionary ladder may seem silly, but the ideas at the center of the film — that actions reap consequences, that human treatment of animals is ultimately indefensible, that domination breeds revolution and that corporate-funded science is fundamentally untrustworthy — are anything but. Not bad for a popcorn movie.