Rise of the Planet of the Apes (PG-13) ★★★½

Review Date: August 5th, 2011

As its title suggests, Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes is intended to lay the foundation for a new franchise of sci-fi flicks in which humans and super-intelligent apes battle for earthly supremacy. Its duty, then, is to explain, within the span of two hours and with a modicum of credulity, how exactly our simian friends might come to supplant us atop the animal kingdom. The scenario was at least partially addressed in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth entry in the original series' convoluted and time-warped canon, and while Wyatt's film draws inspiration from Conquest, it is by no means a remake. Nor, for that matter, is related in any way to Tim Burton's underwhelming 2001 entry. (And thank goodness for that.)

The titular rise begins, as with many of the world's great catastrophes, with the actions of one highly irresponsible man. Will Rodman (James Franco) is a genetic scientist of prodigious talent and questionable ethics who works at a fancy San Francisco biotech firm called Gen-Sys (subtle!). His effort at producing a cure for Alzheimer's Disease carries an ulterior motive: His father (John Lithgow) suffers from it, and is close to entering its final stages. Will is close to a breakthrough when one of his chimpanzee test subjects goes, well, apesh*t, causing his company's suitably callous CEO, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo, gamely spewing lines like "I run a business, not a petting zoo!''), to order the research facility's entire chimp population liquidated.

Will is busy carrying out the grim mandate when he discovers that one of the test chimps has borne an offspring, one he can't bring himself to euthanize. Instead, he and his primatologist girlfriend, Caroline (Frieda Pinto, gorgeous and superfluous), partners in appallingly bad decision-making, decide to raise the infant chimp as their own, naming it Caesar. Having inherited his mother's gene modifications, he shows signs of advanced intelligence, and quickly develops a close bond with his adoptive human parents. But Caesar soon outgrows his domestic habitat, and eventually must be shipped off to a simian "sanctuary" that is in reality anything but.

At this point, we're halfway through the film – and miles away from erudite apes and enslaved humans. To get us on track, director Wyatt executes a rather audacious tonal shift, transitioning abruptly from what was heretofore a fairly sober Project Nim dramatization into the balls-out apes-gone-wild summer action flick promised by the film's trailers. His efforts are aided tremendously by his screenwriters, Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa, whose clever, absorbing script offers just enough plausibility in the first half to make its increasingly loony second half not just palatable but downright enjoyable. Wyatt strikes a delicate thematic balance, respecting the subject matter while acknowledging its inherent silliness. (Scattered throughout the film are sly nods to previous Planet of the Apes films, as well as a glimpse of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.)

The silliness accelerates seemingly by the frame in Rise's latter half, as Caesar mounts a conspiracy to escape his Dickensian squalor, exact revenge upon his cartoonishly malevolent captors, and take his simian revolution to the streets. And it only gets crazier from there – the third act is basically a PETA wet dream. As far as cautionary tales go, Rise is about as cautionary as they come.

Andy Serkis, who performed all of the performance-capture work for Caesar, is a marvel in the role, though the question remains as to how the credit should be divvied up between him and the technicians at WETA digital, who "painted" the character's CG features. And make no mistake, Caesar is very much a character – as well-rounded and fully-formed and convincing as they come, and easily more compelling than any of his non-digital counterparts. Franco, for his part, is credible enough as a scientist who, in spite of his academic credentials, is a bit of a dolt (and perhaps a tad disturbed), and Lithgow tackles a relatively thankless role with grace. But the real stars are all those damn, dirty apes.

Hollywood.com rated this film 3 1/2 stars.