One of the lingering questions of the entire Planet of the Apes series has been how the monkeys managed to take over the asylum. How did they get so smart and mankind so dumb? Taking a plausible stab, albeit in an implausible manner, at explaining how it came to pass is Rise of the Planet of the Apes or as I call it, Rise o' da World o' da Monkees.
James Franco is a medical researcher trying to find a cure for Alzheimer's with a personal stake: his father, John Lithgow, is slipping away from the ravages of the disease. Thinking he's made a breakthrough, he is presenting his results to the Evil Big Pharma Company's board when the chimp he'd treated bursts in, gone crazy, and is shot dead by security. Game over. No more research - buy they give up easy - and the rest of the test animals are to be put down. (As in killed, not called names.) They discover the reason for her freak-out, she'd carried an undetected pregnancy - real sharp observers at this lab, eh? - and the baby was what she was trying to protect. Whoops.
Franco takes it home, names him Caesar, and discovers that he's inherited his mother's enhanced intelligence. He also treats his dad with the drug, apparently curing him. Things are fine for 8 years by with time Caesar has grow, both in size and smarts. However, when Lithgow starts to regress, Caesar's ill-conceived plan to protect him from a crappy neighbor results in him being shipped off to a primate preserve run by Col. Stryker from X-Men 2 and Draco Malfoy. Yes, it's a crappy place with plenty of abuse, but it's also where Caesar decides to make his own fortunes. Monkeyshines ensue.
The power of RotPotA comes from motion capture performer Andy Serkis (aka Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson's films) and the FX wizards at Weta who take the series past the limitations of the stiff rubber prosthetics of the first five films (and the ill-considered Tim Burton "re-imagining") into fully computer-generated chimps, gorillas, and orangutangs. With Serkis' on-set performance being capturing by motion and facial-tracking cameras, he has been transformed into Caesar, a completely realized character, not merely a special effect. There is talk that this may finally cause the Academy Awards to come to grips with the reality that these performance capture-driven CGI entities need to be considered as ACTING and not merely animation. Some idiot at Entertainment Weekly had a rant about why Avatar's actors didn't deserve consideration and it's still BS. Remember that Serkis got snubbed for his work as Gollum a decade ago. Perhaps the Actor's Branch needs to be forced to watch this:
There are a few instances where the monkeys look rubbery and the swirling camera movements make you aware of their physical impossibility, but for the most part you believe these are real, thinking creatures. So well executed are the apes, the people come off uniformly flat and underwritten. Franco is miscast, he's never plausible as a scientist; Frieda Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) is lovely, but just there to be a female character in an otherwise sausage fest movie; Brian Cox and Tom Felton are cliches; only Lithgow is slightly better off, but that's because he's playing a disease and not a person.
There are also several glaring logic and execution gaps starting with the passage of 8 years feeling like 8 weeks because there's no outward sign of the passage of time - no one grows older or changes hairstyle or changes jobs or anything. The company gives up instantly on developing the drug, but when Franco comes up with an improved version (and inadvertently setting off the extinction of the human race in a ham-handed scene), they immediately rush it into production without proper testing. When Sock from Reaper starts sneezing blood, he doesn't really make much of an effort to let anyone know that he's Patient Zero for the annihilation of the human race. Dumbass.
But when we're in the presence of the soon-to-rise apes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is sublime. Everything cool about this movie stems from the artistry of Serkis and his fellow performers with Weta pushing mountains of realistic pixels to skin the acting in realistic fur. Everything lame involves the real living people. Kudos to director Rupert Wyatt for making what's almost a silent movie - I'd like to see the screenplay to see how it was originally written and structured.
Score: 7/10. Catch a matinee.