By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

Say hello once again to the apes of wrath.

Yep, they’re on the rise:  here are the creatures we came to know in 1968 in the original Planet of the Apes and subsequently in four sequels, then encountered again a decade ago in the remake.

Now comes a reboot of the basic concept in a prequel that may or may not be the equal of the original — although it’s at least close — but is clearly superior to all the previous sequels.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a humanistic science fiction drama that eventuates into an action flick, a chronicle of how the apes came to power in the first place, as well as a cautionary tale about the inherent limitations of scientific breakthroughs and progress.

And, standing alone as a narrative, it’s significantly different from any of its predecessors.

In 2001, director Tim Burton remade/reimagined/reinvented the 1968 science-fiction-adventure original, Planet of the Apes, with Mark Wahlberg inheriting the iconic astronaut role from Charlton Heston.

As always, the twin themes were tolerance and civil rights.  But whereas the five earlier editions made in the early 1970s — including Beneath the Planet of the Apes, Escape from the Planet of the Apes, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, and Battle for the Planet of the Apes — were about the culture clash, as were the two television series, this new offering, primarily a prequel to the original, deals with the ethics involved in genetic engineering.

The origin story is set in contemporary San Francisco, where Will Rodman, a scientist at a large pharmaceutical corporation called Gen-Sys, played by James Franco, has been conducting a series of experiments attempting to discover a cure for Alzheimer’s (which he’s passionate about because his ailing father, played by John Lithgow, is suffering from it) by testing an experimental drug, ALZ-112, on apes.

At first the results are promising, even spectacular, including a gigantic boost to the brain function and intelligence of the apes, suggesting a new breed of ape with human-like smarts.  But when the tests hit a dead end and an exhibition gets botched, the lab director orders the apes destroyed.

Soon Rodman finds himself in the care of a secreted-away baby chimpanzee named Caesar, whose mother was administered the drug when he was in the womb.  Where there’s a Will, there’s a way to adopt Caesar and raise him, which is what Will does, surreptitiously continuing his work at home.

But Caesar is eventually separated from his human family and ends up at an animal shelter, the San Bruno Animal Sanctuary, which turns out to be essentially a prison, where he encounters abused apes.

Caesar, portrayed with uncanny skill by motion-capture specialist Andy Serkis, eventually leads his species in a revolutionary uprising during which the apes attempt to overthrow their human oppressors.

Director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), working from a screenplay by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver that’s inspired by the Pierre Boulle novel, incorporates a few elements from, and includes a few in-joke references to, the earlier films, but tells the story from Caesar’s point of view, generating an impressive amount of pathos and legitimate suspense.

Whereas the previous entries featured makeup and masks as the primary media in presenting the apes as characters, CGI is the main ingredient this time.  Wyatt has motion-capture technology at his disposal, which allows for a lot more expressiveness on the faces of the apes than was possible underneath the masks and prosthetic makeup in the earlier installments.

The state-of-the-art special effects are impressively seamless, convincing enough for the ongoing suspension of disbelief and occasionally causing the suspension of breath as well.

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (earlier titled “Caesar and Rise of the Apes”) presents itself as the foundation for a new movie series.  It’s not exactly “gorillas just want to have fun”; actually, it’s more like a companion piece to (or the fictional version of) another cautionary tale, the recent documentary, Project Nim (see review).

But what stays with you during and after Rise of the Planet of the Apes is just how nifty a set of illusions course through this thoroughly enjoyable science-gone-kablooey thriller.

So we’ll pass the popcorn and the bananas to 3 stars out of 4 for this rebooted simian saga.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a splendid work of escapism about apeism.

More Bill Wine movie reviews