Combustible Celluloid
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With: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris, David Hewlett, Ty Olsson
Written by: Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel by Pierre Boulle
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
MPAA Rating: PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence
Running Time: 105
Date: 08/03/2011

Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Ape Fear

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Rise of the Planet of the Apes may be my favorite summer popcorn movie of 2011. So far it's the only one that surprises, and exceeds expectations. It's the only one that has an actual idea. It also gets bonus points for using San Francisco locations to such amusing and powerful effect.

It had nowhere to go but up, given that the last Planet of the Apes movie was Tim Burton's abominably awful 2001 version, which was more or less a remake of the original 1968 version. That original was based on a 1963 French novel by Pierre Boulle and spawned four sequels during the 1970s, as well as a live action TV series and an animated TV series. Directed by Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is the seventh feature film. This one has the clever concept of imagining the origins of the entire series.

It begins as scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) tries to develop a cure for Alzheimer's disease. Like most movie scientists, he's doing this for personal reasons. His beloved father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from that terrible condition. Will has reached the testing phase and one chimpanzee seems to be responding well, but suddenly she begins acting strangely. The entire program is shut down, but Will rescues a baby chimp, whom he names Caesar.

It turns out the chimp was born with the properties of the new drug, which not only cures Alzheimer's, but enhances intelligence. Caesar (portrayed by Andy Serkis, who also modeled for Golem in The Lord of the Rings and Kong in King Kong) gets bigger and smarter, and eventually gets himself in trouble. He's sent to a special facility with other apes, and held prisoner by the greedy John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sadistic, bullying son Dodge (Tom Felton).

I won't say more, though the pleasures of this movie continue from start to finish. Director Wyatt shows many sequences without dialogue, as Caesar learns hard lessons about the world; the chimp's eyes are amazingly expressive, just as Golem's and Kong's were. (Is Serkis a great actor, or merely a great special effect?) The digital apes are mostly fine, though in most shots their computerized movements are all too apparent. However, the action sequences are spectacular, with the camera moving fluidly and confidently through the streets. (And it's not even in 3D!)

Franco follows up his Oscar-nominated performance in 127 Hours, and he doesn't have much depth here, though he does strike up a touching bond with Caesar. The astoundingly beautiful Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire) shows up as a vet that fixes Caesar's paw and falls for Will. She's at his side throughout but doesn't have much to do. In fact, not many of the humans seem very bright or memorable. It's as if the movie has already written off the human race right from the start.

But, taken at the level of comic book, popcorn pulp, this is good stuff (you find yourself rooting for the apes!). Last spring I praised a trio of sci-fi movies that were all based on ideas rather than on battles -- The Adjustment Bureau, Limitless, and Source Code -- and I'm convinced that, as pulpy as it is, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deserves to join them.

Just in time for Christmas, 2011, Fox has released a two-disc set that includes a Blu-Ray and a DVD, as well as a digital copy (the DVD has no real extras). On the Blu-Ray, aside from glorious picture and sound, we get a smorgasbord of extras: two filmmaker commentary tracks, deleted scenes, and tons of featurettes, including one on actor Andy Serkis and one on composer Patrick Doyle.

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