Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

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After Tim Burton went bananas in 2001 with his extravagantly misguided gorilla-gothic remake of the original, Rise of the Planet of the Apes sure brings the series back down to Earth.

Set in contemporary San Francisco against a background of genetic engineering, it also brings it back to a kind of start. One that offers a captivating and exciting alternative take on how the whole ape-supplants-man-as-dominant-species farrago started out.

And while it wants to rewrite the series history, which got increasingly silly with the four 1970s prequels and sequels, this one plays respectfully on fans' affections for the first Apes flick, unlike Burton's off-the-planet near-parody .

It's got lines and scenes cribbed in slyly amusing ways. Many of those are when cerebrally supercharged chimp Caesar (that name itself a reference to earlier films) is locked up in a facility for errant primates and gets treated much like Charlton Heston's astronaut did by his captors in the 1968 film.

Like the original movie did with a US east coast landmark, Rise makes great use of a west coast one- the Golden Gate - as a symbol of freedom to Caesar.

And it makes for a visually striking and exciting sequence when the San Francisco bridge becomes a giant jungle gym for Caesar and his gang in the high-action finale, which also shows how those gorilla troops of the future acquired their cavalry skills.

But before the primate rebellion hinted at in the title, this plays out as a cautionary tale of GE ethics, pharmaceutical corporate greed and jailbreak thriller (interestingly, English director Wyatt's previous feature was prison flick The Escapist). It's also, for the large part, a movie about a guy and the pet who outgrows its station in life.

Scientist Will Rodman (Franco) has smuggled Caesar home from his lab as an orphan. As he grows up to become a hazard around the house, the Andy Serkis performance as the digitally rendered chimp outdoes everybody and everything else in the film.

Here, the man who was Gollum and King Kong adds another Weta Digital-powered motion-capture tour de force, with his hairy avatar's expressive portrayal. That is even when things are getting slightly silly, like the subtitled scenes when Caesar is "signing" with an orangutan cellmate who learned his language skills as a circus act.

But with the character of Caesar so emotionally engaging, it's hard not to end up rooting for him and his gang, even if they do represent the end of mankind as we know it.

Which means the human cast struggle to leave much of an impression. Franco's scientist, whose work on a cure for Alzheimer's in a lab using chimps as test subjects leads to Caesar's boosted brainpower, isn't hugely convincing as a GE genius, though John Lithgow as Rodman's dementia-suffering father has some touching moments with Caesar.

And the film manages three Brits as villains - David Oyelowo as Rodman's corporate boss, Brian Cox as the primate jail warden and Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton, as his cruel ape-keeper son.

They help make what is, surprisingly, a highly entertaining reboot.

One which makes you wonder if Serkis will play the descendants of Caesar in the future instalments? And will he end up as a digitally duped Charlton Heston to complete the loop?

Stars: 4/5
Cast: Andy Serkis, James Franco, John Lithgow, Frieda Pinto, Brian Cox
Director: Rupert Wyatt
Rating: M (contains violence)
Running time: 106 minutes
Verdict: Surprisingly smart sixth sequel

- TimeOut

- NZ Herald

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