“Ten years from now, it will be the 1968 version that people are still renting.”
So predicted Roger Ebert after Tim Burton’s scattershot “Planet of the Apes” remake, released a decade ago, did more to discredit primates than Charlton Heston.
Whether the odor of that effort still lingers could determine the future of a once-vital franchise, confidently revived this week in Rupert Wyatt’s “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
Ebert was right. Today, Burton’s film is remembered as a regrettable footnote to the story of French novelist Pierre Boulle’s highly evolved simians, who pool their collective strength to take back the planet, enslaving humans in the process.
“Rise,” an origins story set in and around present-day San Francisco, deserves better.
The mystery is not whether the apes we meet early on — test subjects at the lab where researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s — will break free to strike back at their human oppressors. That much is made clear in the movie’s trailers, featuring gorilla warfare on the Golden Gate Bridge.
“Rise” focuses on the events that provoke the simian revolt led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a primate blessed with a soaring IQ thanks to Rodman’s experimental brain candy. More than the movie’s other angry apes, Caesar, whom Rodman initially raises like a son, is sympathetic to the human condition.
Yet locked away in a San Bruno primate shelter after a violent outburst, he begins to identify with his fellow prisoners — powerful, intelligent creatures held back only by their inability to communicate. In a moment of revelation, both for Caesar and the guards who watch over him, he clears that hurdle, uttering his first word and sending Wyatt’s thriller into overdrive.
As spectacle, “Rise” is on a par with Burton’s model (which brilliantly updated the look of the original “Apes”), rendering the damn, dirty beasts with such painstaking clarity you forget you’re watching CGI. In all other respects, it is a dramatic improvement.
Easily the most polished of the sequels, prequels and reboots inspired by Franklin Schaffner’s original, the movie delivers a smart, mostly plausible backstory and a star, in Caesar, whom Serkis (Gollum in “Lord of the Rings”) plays with nuance and feeling.
When he and the others attack, it’s natural for human audiences to root for their fellow man, much as we’re loath to condone his own savagery. It’s a testament to Wyatt, Serkis and Weta Digital’s crack animation then that, somehow, the apes’ “Rise” seems cause for celebration.
Starring James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton
Written by Pierre Boulle, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes