Hollywood has been feeding upon itself so much lately, I don't know quite how to categorize Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Is it a reboot of a prequel? A prequel of a remake?
Perhaps it's best to say that it's just the missing chapter in pop culture's fictional history of Earth's primate rebellion, now that computer graphics have gotten us to the point where we can believably simulate a simian uprising without resorting to casting actors in ape suits. These days, the actors are in gray unitards with little dots on them, their performances motion captured and brought to life by computer jockeys. But I'll buy it if the results are as impressive as they are in Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Thespian Andy Serkis, whose groundbreaking "virtual performances" as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and as the eponymous star of King Kong portrays Caesar, the offspring of a San Francisco pharmaceutical company's test chimp. After his mother goes berserk from anti-Alzheimer's drug injections meant and is then killed, baby Caesar is taken under the wing of the drug's inventor, played by James Franco. Franco, you see, is watching his own father (John Lithgow) fade away from this disease, and his good intentions are what lay the groundwork for the apes' eventual domination.
The film is divided into three acts: Caesar's youth, his captivity in what is essentially an ape prison, and the action-packed finale you see in the movie's trailer. All in all, Rise is a well-paced, intelligent, sometimes thrilling, and occasionally quite moving film. It's not so dark that it doesn't provide the summertime moviegoing goods, but it's not so slick as to be written off as mere escapist entertainment.
Serkis, as usual, puts in outstanding work - a necessity, as Caesar is unequivocally the star of the film. Whether the human characters are intentionally two-dimensional or not is hard to say, but Freida Pinto is wasted as Franco's girlfriend, as is Brian Cox as the manager of the "prison". Harry Potter's Tom "Draco" Felton and David Oyelowo are cardboard villains, Franco himself is bland, and only Lithgow finds enough humanity in his character to match the depths of Serkis's Caesar. Cookie cutter dialogue doesn't help anyone.
So no, it's not a perfect film. (And Vancouver, where the film was shot, is an unlikely stand-in for the iconic streets of San Francisco.) But it's still one of the most entertaining and satisfying blockbusters I've seen in the last couple of years.
Credit is due not only to Serkis but to Rings/Kong cinematographer Andrew Lesnie and the Weta digital effects workshop. It's probably unfair for me to downplay director Rupert Wyatt's role in this, but the relatively unknown Brit, with just two low-budget features to his name, may have just been following studio orders. The film is produced by Fox head honcho Peter Chernin, which is noteworthy; fellow producers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who also penned the script, haven't worked since the 1997 bomb The Relic, so they can't claim much authorship either (although their story is tight).
In any event, the film is packed with amazing images. Somebody - whether it was Wyatt, Lesnie, or an anonymous pre-visualization artist - sure knew how to set up a great big-screen composition using a bunch of CG apes. Some shots are just so downright awesome that I could hear audible gasping in the theater, and I can't remember the last time that's happened at the movies.