Boy, chimps sure are pissed at humans. At least that’s the case in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a prequel to the Planet of the Apes series that portrays how those simians got so smart in the first place. Though the blowout is fierce, its origins are quite pedestrian, really: It was just an experiment gone wrong.
That, and a man who didn’t fight hard enough for his chimp. “I’m sorry, this is all my fault,” says scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) with guffaw-eliciting understatement after a sanctuary’s worth of chimpanzees, gorillas, and orangutans lose their shit on the Golden Gate Bridge. Landon’s responsible for creating a drug that regenerates brain cells in Alzheimer’s patients. His most promising test subject, Bright Eyes (its name one amongst several nods to the original film), appeared to have suffered violent side effects and was shot down. But not before giving birth — and passing along her altered genes — to Caesar (Andy Serkis, again working undetected under performance-capture technology). Caesar needs to be protected when the experiment is terminated, so Will takes the hirsute tyke home, teaching him language and raising him as a pet for his Alzheimer’s-plagued father (John Lithgow).
But as anyone who’s seen Project Nim knows, a chimp doesn’t remain domesticated forever, and soon Caesar is court-ordered to live the rest of his days in a sanctuary-as-prison. (You’ll hate its weasely, cruel keeper, played by Tom Felton, aka Harry Potter’s Draco Malfoy.) Though the other apes are not exactly welcoming to Caesar, he’s more dangerous than they are because of his lethal combination of intelligence and anger. A sadistic guardian, an owner who abandons him, peers who think they’re all alpha — of course things are about to go bananas.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt from a script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver — no, none of these names are of any renown — Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a self-serious but still entertaining technological marvel. Serkis, who also played King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, brings Caesar to anthropomorphic life without seams; you’ll easily read his expressions yet never once question whether there’s a human underneath the hair. The other apes are just as majestic and fluid, their uprising a thrilling marvel to behold.
But where the action excels, the tone falters, with characters and dialogue that are a little too flat to make the film exceptional. Its only laughs are unintentional, such as when that famous line from the original is reprised — though it’s not because of the command itself, but the surprising response the deliverer gets from one damn, dirty ape.