Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13)

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Kernel Rating (out of 5): whole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernalwhole-popcorn-kernal

Length: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

Age Appropriate for: 13+. There’s some light cursing, but generally the rating is more about the violence. A chimpanzee bites a human’s finger off; there’s a massive showdown between the humans and the apes and you see characters from each side die; and you see the bodies of chimps killed by a pharmaceutical company after a medical scare. Those apes’ fangs are scary, I must say.

In “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” Andy Serkis — the man who brought such life to Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” film trilogy — plays Caesar, the ape version of Che Guevara. And basically everything about it is fantastic.

By Roxana Hadadi

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” has a pretty solid cast: Actor-turned-student-turned-writer-turned-artist James Franco stars; “Slumdog Millionaire” beauty Freida Pinto continues looking gorgeous; James Lithgow gives a sympathetic performance as a genius suffering from Alzheimer’s disease; and “Harry Potter” fiends will be happy to see Tom Felton, the one and only Draco Malfoy, in a film that doesn’t have to do with that Gryffindor kid with a lightning-bolt scar. But if you don’t walk away from this film thoroughly convinced that Andy Serkis, the man whose performance was motion-captured to create the ape Caesar, was the best of the bunch, then I’m going to fight you.

Films that use motion capture get an actor to step in a bodysuit covered with markers for each joint, and they act, and then computers create an animated character based on it. A few different genres have done this — from Jim Carrey’s family-friendly “A Christmas Carol” to Peter Jackson’s phenomenally successful “Lord of the Rings” fantasy trilogy — but I can’t think of any actor in that field who can even parallel Serkis. The Brit exceeds at this: Watch Jackson’s “The Two Towers” or “Return of the King,” in which Serkis played the spiteful, shy, self-hating and Precious-lusting Gollum. You should readily despise the creature but his wide, trusting eyes and pitiful nature make it nearly impossible. Thank Serkis for that.

He had a misstep with Jackson’s remake of “King Kong,” in which he played the titular character — really, everyone involved in that film had a misstep — but here Serkis makes playing an ape look like highly tuned method acting, a finely finessed art. He gives depth, empathy, rage and triumph to an animal humans still don’t fully understand, and that’s somewhat the point: Serkis taps into that unknowing to perfect Caesar, a curious, wonderful and misunderstood creature who makes a series of decisions that lead him into revolution. You don’t have to agree with his violent approach, but you will respect his resourcefulness, cleverness and resolve — and thanks to Serkis’s nuanced depiction, you’ll fully understand it.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” wisely takes some elements from the franchise’s narrative mythology (the launch of the Icarus space shuttle; the name Caesar from the main character in 1972’s “Conquest of the Planet of the Apes”; and a nod to the original, 1968 version of “Planet of the Apes,” starring Charlton Heston) to create a familiar plot, but director Rupert Wyatt and writers Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa keep things fresh by both setting the film firmly in the now and disbanding with much of the campiness of the previous films. Instead, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is generally straightforward and spare in its storytelling style — no unforeseen twists, no unbelievable deus ex machina moments — making it so that every interaction between characters completely counts. The film is a brisk 105 minutes, and yet the characters are totally fleshed out and every decision makes sense. Take some notes, “Cowboys & Aliens.”

In present-day San Francisco, scientist Will Rodman (Franco), desperate to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease so he can help his ailing father (Lithgow), has spent the last five years working on a drug that would reverse Alzheimer’s by creating new cells to rebuild a person’s brain. He finally believes ALZ-112 is ready to go when a chimpanzee in a lab run by his employer, Gen-Sys, is able to solve a puzzle in record time when under the effects of the drug — but when the ape, Bright Eyes, breaks free of her handlers and crashes into a meeting with investors, ultimately shot to death by a police officer, Will’s research is basically over. His boss, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), just cares about money, so he orders all the chimpanzees in the lab to be killed. When lab assistant Franklin (Tyler Labine) discovers Bright Eyes gave birth to a son while in captivity, however, he can’t bring himself to off the baby. Instead, he gives the newborn to Will, who resignedly takes the ape home until Franklin can find another place for it.

But the cuteness of that baby (Serkis) can’t be denied, and when Will sees how the ape cheers up his father, he decides to keep him. It helps, too, that the baby has green-flecked eyes, just like those treated with ALZ-112 — born while Bright Eyes was being treated with the drug, Caesar, as Will’s father names him, has innate intelligence and emotion. At 3 years old, he’s finding ways to steal cookies from a hidden jar and eagerly watching the neighbors through his attic bedroom window; at 8, he’s frolicking through the redwoods in a nearby park and powerful enough to want to defend Will, his father and Will’s veterinarian girlfriend Caroline (Pinto) in case they’re in danger. It’s that violent emotion that tears Caesar away from Will, though, as the two are forced to separate — and Caesar, sent to a primate shelter and thrust into the unfamiliar world of living with other apes, realizes he can’t go back to his attic bedroom anymore. He may never be able to go home again.

I shouldn’t care about a CGI ape, but I do, I do! Serkis is so dynamic as Caesar that he carries scenes with both humans like Franco (who dials down his weirdness to believably play a caring father, but is still somewhat wooden as a scientist) and other apes (similarly portrayed by motion-captured actors), like orangutans and chimpanzees Caesar meets at the shelter. Curled up in a fetal position, perched at the top of a giant redwood tree or defiantly standing in front of other apes, ready to lead them into the great unknown human world, Serkis makes Caesar the film’s magnetic, charismatic draw. He giggles and hoots, and then he stares and snarls — his wholly believable development is what carries “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” and it helps that Wyatt helps us see things from his point of view, whether he swings around Will’s kitchen or is surveying his enemies in a city landscape.

The action scenes are solid, too, especially when that rise begins: There are enough unique battles and menacing face-offs, coupled with homage to the original “Planet of the Apes,” to keep you startled and appreciative. The climax on the Golden Gate Bridge is impressive in its audacity — “Apes on a Bridge” sounds like a great thematic remake of “Snakes on a Plane” — but also spellbinding because of it. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” benefits most from Serkis’s performance and Wyatt’s vision, and I’d be down with a sequel. Tomorrow, next summer, whenever. Just give me more Caesar.

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