'Render unto Caesar" must have taken on a whole new meaning at Weta Digital, the Down Under visual effects factory where the CG star of Rise of the Planet of the Apes was born. A sentient chimpanzee with the expressive range of a Method actor, Caesar is the digitally rendered end product of Andy Serkis' soulful mug - the same Andy Serkis whose doleful, desperate emoting served as the basis for Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.
In the production notes for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis is hailed as "the world's foremost performance capture actor," an amusing bit of hyperbole that nonetheless suggests there's something to Serkis' thespian skills when his face is covered in computer-readable sensors. And there's no contest: In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a shamelessly fun B-movie with A-movie effects, Caesar is a whole lot more convincing and compelling than James Franco, perhaps the world's foremost performance-inert actor.
Franco is Will Rodman, a scientist experimenting with a new gene therapy drug that promises to reverse the devastations of Alzheimer's disease. He has a personal stake in ALZ-112 - his dad (John Lithgow), once a great pianist, suffers from dementia and memory loss, wearing a blank gaze and a bathrobe, in Will's home.
And so Will tests his new drug on the lab monkeys, and the results are amazing: IQs rocket upward, their cognitive skills improve dramatically, they outscore humans on logic puzzles. Will's boss at Gen-Sys (David Oyelowo) smells money - kazillions.
Of course, just as Will is about to demonstrate the new wonder drug's potential to the company's board, a major mishap occurs. Bright Eyes, the test chimp, goes nuts. Havoc is wreaked. Back to the drawing board.
And back to Will, who has sneaked a blanket-swathed piece of company property out of Gen-Sys - Bright Eyes' newborn, a cute little fella he dubs Caesar.
Over the next few years, man and monkey bond. Caesar learns sign language, and Will doesn't learn anything. Freida Pinto comes along, as a primatologist who falls for Will, and for Caesar (the only monkey in the movie, it should be noted, to wear pants). A neighbor has an unfortunate run-in with the chimp, and it's off to a grim, prisonlike primate center, where Caesar has to do time with a bunch of dumb apes, and contend with the shifty malfeasance of the "sanctuary's" administrator (Brian Cox) and his sadistic underling (Tom Felton, also known as Harry Potter nemesis Draco Malfoy).
A prequel to the 1968 sci-fi classic Planet of the Apes (and an origin story, too), Rise of the Planet of the Apes - directed by Rupert Wyatt - plays around with the usual cautionary tropes: societal prejudices, the hubris of humankind, the danger of messing with Mother Nature. The climactic confrontation between man and beast, set on the spans of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, is ateem with cool, old-school comic-book spectacle.
In the oeuvre of Planet of the Apes pics - four sequels to the original, and the 2001 Tim Burton-directed remake - Rise is certainly not the most interesting, nor the most inventive. But it's not risible, either.
Contact movie critic Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://www.philly.com/philly/blogs/onmovies/