The prospect of resurrecting the long-dormant Planet of the Apes franchise was a highly dubious one, especially after Tim Burton's appallingly wrong-headed 2001 remake that wasn't so much confusing as it was completely uninspired. Ten years have passed and any and all sequel plans have been scrapped (and Tim Roth is probably still kicking himself for choosing the role of General Thade over Professor Snape), and now, at first glance, it may seem like Rise of the Planet of the Apes (a prequel story) is simply a cash grab fueled by a sense of misguided nostalgia -- is Planet of the Apes really all that relevant or interesting in 2011 as compared to the heydays of the shirtless, mugging Charlton Heston?
The answer is: oh yes, and perhaps even more so.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes really has no business being as good as it is. The original Apes had some great ideas but was heavy on the hokiness (a good portion of it coming from the aforementioned shirtless, mugging Heston), and each subsequent sequel got worse and worse until the series completely self-destructed with the wretched Battle For the Planet of the Apes (the fifth film in the franchise, for those keeping count).
But Rise is the real deal, a compelling, gripping and -- heh heh -- rather smart piece of science fiction, a sometimes terrifying and often hearbreaking Frankenstein tale that could very well jump-start a new Apes series.
The casting -- at least when it comes to the humans -- could've been better. James Franco is a likable performer but he comes across a bit too much like a stoner to be convincing as a driven, obsessive scientist, one searching for a cure for Alzheimer's Disease, which is currently taking its toll on his once-brilliant father (John Lithgow, who delivers the best performance of the human cast). Freida Pinto is blank and wooden as Franco's colleague and sweetie, though admittedly she's given little to do beyond delivering "voice of reason" lines like "Some things shouldn't be tampered with." Tom Felton goes for another bad guy role (though this one with a not-bad American accent) as the apes' "jailer" and can't quite shake our memories of the sniveling, quick-to-whimper Draco Malfoy. And Brian Cox does that contemplative/condescending frowning thing he does so well.
However, the weaknesses in the human cast matter little, as the real star of the show is Andy Serkis as Caesar, the lab animal subjected to experiments that lead to him starting a simian revolution that results in global domination and the enslavement of the human race. Serkis, Hollywood's go-to mo-cap maestro, delivers an astonishing performance, and interestingly enough it's his most subtle and nuanced yet -- while his "ape-movements" are of course top-notch, it's the little facial expressions, the slight moves of the head, the sly half-smiles and the chilling scowls that make all the difference. He is, indeed, one smart and cunning ape.
Serkis' work is matched only by the film's spectacle. This is a full-throttle revolution, and director Rupert Wyatt and his team have spared no expense in bringing this violent vision to life. The movie has its fair share of scary moments while we're in the lab, but it becomes rather terrifying once the apes are on the loose in San Francisco (and beyond). The trailer offers glimpses of the battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, in particular, but trust me -- you ain't seen nothing yet.
And see this you should. Fans will be pleased by a handful of wink-wink references to previous installments in the franchise (some subtle, some not so subtle, and one really not so subtle to the point where it's a bit distracting) and newcomers will get to start their Apes initiation with a top-notch sci-fi flick that manages to more or less stay on course with the events of its predecessors (or successors, rather). The Rise is rousing, and hopefully this origin story is indeed just the beginning.