Twentieth Century Fox should keep its stinking paws off the Planet of the Apes idea. After remaking the original film a decade ago to widespread disdain, Fox now takes the fantasy in an entirely different direction, and it's chiefly downward.
The only reason this movie exists is that motion capture technology has greatly advanced, allowing Andy Serkis to pull off another impressive cyber-transformation. The body behind Gollum and the most recent King Kong, plays Caesar, a simian Che Guevara leading the ape revolt. Serkis is the modern Lon Chaney, a man of 1,000 faces grafted on digitally.
He's certainly more expressive than James Franco, playing human so blandly that the race might be better off dominated. Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist tirelessly working on a cure for Alzheimer's before his father (John Lithgow) succumbs to the disease. Will's latest serum creates brain cells, showing promise until a lab test subject — Caesar's mother — goes bonkers during a demonstration.
The project is shut down and the apes are exterminated, except Will smuggles Caesar out of the lab to raise him at home, continuing his doses of the serum. Over several years Will teaches Caesar sign language, impressing his girlfriend Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto). But the ape is learning much more, like the fact that being outdoors beats benevolent imprisonment in Will's attic. One escape leads to an assault on a neighbor, so Caesar is forced into a primate sanctuary and learns about human brutality.
The other inmates are accustomed to such treatment but Caesar displays leadership by picking the locks on their cells and sharing a couple of canisters of the serum he steals. Here's the widest leap of logic in director Rupert Wyatt's film: Caesar became super-intelligent through years of medication and training, but his cellmates need only a whiff of smart gas to evolve nearly as much. That's a shortcut that would be red-flagged in Screenwriting 101, along with an end credits coda setting up a sequel that probably won't happen.
Wyatt doesn't help matters by constantly dropping references to the franchise's 1968 origins that this movie desperately needs viewers to forget. A television screen briefly shows Charlton Heston in the first Planet of the Apes. The most abusive human (Tom Felton) invokes Heston's famous demand: "Keep your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape." One simian is named Cornelia (a twist on Roddy McDowell's character Cornelius), and another is named for Maurice Evans, who played the wise orangutan Dr. Zaius.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes feels like half of a good movie, much of it revealed in admittedly thrilling trailers showing hordes of angry simians rebelling against human captors in present day San Francisco. That climatic sequence, with apes using the Golden Gate Bridge as monkey bars and a leaping gorilla causing a helicopter crash, is the best thing about this reboot.
The rest is something a caged chimp might fling at zoo visitors.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365.