This summer's bombardment of sequels, remakes and adaptations only continues to prove that hot weather spurs in moviegoers a genuine fear of anything unique or different. So before the summer draws to a close, we get at least one more dusty franchise reboot that no one asked for. As it seems even though the first movie came out in 1968 -- and the last one was 2001's grimly forgettable Tim Burton remake -- the "Planet Of The Apes" series still has enough cultural swing to elicit this prequel: "Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes". Studios must be praying that contemporary viewers are just familiar enough with the concept to pony up the dough. (Because I'd bet not too many youngsters have seen Charlton Heston's sci-fi classic.)
If audiences make the effort, they'll witness not just a decent yarn about animal testing -- literally -- run amok, but also a movie milestone in Motion Capture technology. At the center of both is Caesar, an ape genetically altered to human-level intelligence that was raised from infancy by Will Rodman (James Franco), an experimental geneticist seeking the cure for Alzheimer's. Over the years the two develop a father-son bond as Will teaches Caesar to use sign language and even dresses him in human clothes. Their ideal, B.J. And The Bear existence is shattered when Caesar unwittingly provokes a neighbor and is placed in the Shawshank prison of animal sanctuaries. There, for the first time among apes like him, Caesar experiences his first taste of human cruelty at the hands of a sadistic zookeeper (Tom Felton, or Draco Malfoy to all you Potter fans) before using his superior intellect to rally his primate companions for a daring escape.
Most of the movie is build up to an uproarious final set-piece in which the army of furry feces-hurlers makes its way through the San Francisco streets and across the Golden Gate Bridge in an attempt to reach the assured solace of the California redwoods. The sequence is certainly worth the wait. Meanwhile, amongst the humans, Rodman's experimental cure accidentally unleashes a deadly virus that will almost certainly spark the human destruction that the 1968 film so famously prognosticated. For better and worse, director Rupert Wyatt chooses to keep the obvious beatnik agenda about animal cruelty and the pedantic warnings about amoral scientists "playing God" at arms length. Wyatt knows too much preaching can sour popcorn-hungry, summer audiences; but he doesn't realize that diluting his film thematically can keep it from ever being relevant, resonant or wise. What gave the original "Planet Of The Apes" (directed by Franklin J. Schaffner) so much depth was the implication that the human race caused its own extinction and the apes rose out of the ashes of our fallen civilization. It was a timely Cold War caution disguised brilliantly in fantasy-movie wrapping paper: A world run by apes with human slaves seemed too horrible to imagine, but nuclear war could've potentially led to a far more dire futuristic reckoning.
"Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" remains decidedly benign, but not because our modern world has eradicated those kinds of apocalyptic threats -- quite the contrary, in fact. The truth is: Wyatt and his crew shy away from the heavy stuff. As consequence, they deliver an amusing flick about charming animals fleeing captivity, while all the portentous subtext is lopped off to create a more pop-kitsch experience. I would have preferred a little more Terry Gilliam misanthropy and a little less "Free Willy" crowd-pleasing.
Yet, if the great animal-rescue genre was really what Wyatt & Co. were going for, it's good the film's central beastie is Caesar -- a charismatic and compelling protagonist who upstages all the human characters (including and especially James Franco's throw-away Will Rodman) and balances delicately between anthropomorphized animal and animalistic humanoid. That niche makes him all the more enticing: he's not human enough to ever be more than Rodman's pet monkey and not ape enough to feel at home amongst his own yapping, biting species.
Amazingly, Caesar's species-hybrid identity crisis is what drives the movie, what gives it dramatic fervor. And the effects team utilize Motion Capture technology to give Caesar the expressive vitality needed to merit Wyatt's decision to disregard the humans and make his film all about the apes. Andy Serkis, who played Gollum in "Lord of the Rings", gives an impressive performance with merely the twinges, cringes and mannerisms of his face -- giving value to Steven Spielberg and Robert Zemeckis's much criticized claim that Motion Capture is the future. Except for Gollum (arguably), Serkis's Caesar is the first genuinely acted CGI character, and the actor's incredible turn bodes well for a technology that has its many decriers and needed a successful exemplification of its possibilities. (Do one better, Spielberg! "The Adventures of Tin Tin" comes out in December).
"Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes" does wonders for a still evolving means of movie-magic. But -- in keeping with the duality of Caesar's ape/man persona -- when the movie needs to choose whether it will stimulate our minds or assume we have monkey brains, it decides to throw feces. Probably a safe choice -- I mean, it is summer after all.