Hollywood has already grinded out Planet of the Apes movies by the thousands — OK, there’s only been six, but Tim Burton’s leaden 2001 reboot of the classic 1968 original made it feel like a copycat invasion. Anyway, what I’m saying is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes made a monkey out of me. I was certain it would suck. Instead, the movie rises and, at times, even soars. This is all — and I do mean all — thanks to what human actors in league with computer technology can now achieve to bring the apes to life. No more guys squeezed into monkey suits and talking in posh accents. Performance-capture makes all the difference. Actors step into a body stocking covered in dots and the computer captures every move and nuance and then animates it. To watch what actor Andy Serkis does as Caesar, the lead ape in this movie, is to witness a kind of miracle. Serkis’ performance is not a digital add-on. He’s right there on set, in his body suit, playing scenes with the film’s star, James Franco, and the resulting immediacy pays enormous dividends. In fact, Serkis gives by far the best performance in the movie, deserving an Oscar nod from an Academy long suspicious of this “hybrid” performance art. Given that Serkis worked similar wonders as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong, he is way overdue for recognition. Just sit back and behold.
Sadly, you have to behold a shitload of clich́d plot before the magic starts. Franco, in a lab coat and a faraway stare left over from his ill-fated Oscar hosting gig, plays Will Rodman, a San Francisco scientist experimenting on chimps so he can find a cure for Alzheimer’s. His father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease so Will justifies the suffering his company, Gen-Sys, inflicts of the lab apes. Looking for a villain? The movie finds it in genetic testing. When one experiment goes wrong, Will saves a baby ape, Caesar, and brings him home along with a supply of serum to test on the animal and Will’s own father.
Things go wrong, as they must. But few things go wronger than the romance the film trumps for Will and a hottie veternarian, played by Slumdog Millionaire‘s lovely Freida Pinto. The fun comes in watching Caesar grow smarter as he fights being domesticated. The turning point for the film’s uprising comes when Caesar’s combative streak gets him sent to a primate shelter of Dickensian darkness run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son, played with nasty glee by Tom Felton as if Draco Malfoy had it in for apes instead of rival wizards. Felton even gets to spin Heston’s immortal line, “Take your paws off me, you damn dirty ape.” For additional homage, we learn that the space program has just launched a trip to Mars, presumably with Heston aboard as an astronaut. All together now, “ahh.”
None of this really matters. It’s the apes — chimps, orangutans and gorillas — that Caesar meets at the misnamed shelter that fire up the action. These performance-capture roles are remarkable and when the apes learn to communicate through sign language the seeds of a rebellion are planted. Bitch all you want about the bland acting of the humans, the shameless tearjerking in the banal script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, and the twists lifted from 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes and 1999’s Deep Blue Sea. Solid points for sure. Just wait. When Caesar engineers the ape escape across the Golden Gate bridge you’ll be hooked. Credit director Rupert Wyatt, whose 2008 prison breakout thriller The Escapist, is criminally underrated, with pulling out all the stops. Still, the real story of the film is written on the startlingly expressive face of Caesar — the image of this ape in full gallop on horseback is iconic — and Serkis makes the idea of sequel seem promising instead of predictable. You want to follow him anywhere.
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