If any movie series needed an “origins” reboot, I think the Planet of the Apes series more than qualifies. Throughout the previous movies, and indeed the TV series, we were never really told how all this primate pandemonium kicked off.
British director Rupert Wyatt helms a well-told story, told from the point of view of Caesar, an obviously soon-to-be-Spartacus-like chimpanzee rendered by Weta, the digital geniuses behind Lord of the Rings, King Kong and Avatar, motioned captured from a superlative physical performance by Andy Serkis, who played both Gollum and King Kong.
James Franco stars as scientist Will Rodman, working on a cure that might help his father’s Alzheimer’s, played sympathetically by John Lithgow. During the course of his experiments on apes, he finds his drugs drastically increase their intelligence. During a media demonstration, one particular simian goes monkey nuts, (sorry, couldn’t help myself) causing funding to be withdrawn and the project terminated. Rodman saves the baby Caesar and raises it at home, continuing his testing. Caesar’s smarts increase exponentially, and soon he’s doing everything but talk. Freida Pinto supplies Franco’s veterinary love interest and slips into the role of Caesar’s foster mother, but that’s all her job seems to be. This movie is far more focused on humankind’s hairier brethren.
Human malfeasances stack to a clichéd degree that borders on eye-rolling territory, but never really pops that ever fragile bubble of suspended disbelief. We’ve got the profit-hungry corporate executive eager to push a drug before it’s fully tested, and the evil animal shelter keepers (an understated Brian Cox and a sneering Tom Felton (the blond kid you simply wish Harry Potter would unload on with a looping John Wayne haymaker)) of the facility Caesar is sentenced to after an altercation with a aggressive neighbor. Witnessing the cruelty of his captors, Caesar’s nous starts working overtime. He smartens up the other apes with some flinched serum, and merry hell breaks loose.
The plot may seem simple, but the drama is sensitively addressed, and the appropriate questions are raised quite subtly. The real fun starts when Caesar stages the breakout, and the human characters fade somewhat into the background. We watch the fascinating simian society develop and relationships grow, until the thrilling climax of the film beckons with the whump of chopper blades and the cocking of automatic weapons.
My favorite movie so far this year.
Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 1 hr 50 minutes. Released: 5 August 2011.