Rise of the Planet of the Apes (猩球崛起)

Friday, August 5, 2011
By Colin Covert, Star Tribune (Minneapolis) / MCT

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is first-class entertainment, packed with clever, unsettling and even inspired ideas. A well-crafted prequel to the long-running “Apes” series, it offers a few winks to fans of that cycle of films. Still, there's no background knowledge needed to appreciate this film's impressive accomplishments. It stands proudly on its own two feet, hardly ever dragging its knuckles.

James Franco and John Lithgow are formidable talents, but the film's finest actor never appears directly onscreen. Top marks go to Andy Serkis, the motion-capture specialist who played Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings” (魔戒) films and the title role in Peter Jackson's “King Kong” (金剛). As Caesar, a chimp whose enhanced intelligence leads him to challenge the human power structure, Serkis makes the film his own. The ape grows from exuberant childhood to rueful, rebellious maturity in a performance of remarkable — there is no other word for it — humanity.

The setting is present-day San Francisco, where biotech researcher Will Rodman (Franco) is engineering an Alzheimer's cure. The ethically slippery pharmaceuticals firm that employs him smells limitless profit, but Will's motives are personal and pragmatic. His father (Lithgow) is slipping away one neuron at a time.

This father-son connection is a theme that runs throughout the film. Will adopts the infant Caesar when the chimp's mother, a test animal for Rodman's memory juice, meets an untimely end. The animal is no mere pet but a loving, highly evolved foster child. There is wonderful merriment in the way he bounds around the house, athletically snagging cookies from a jar on a high shelf. He's fluent in sign language, full of curiosity about the world, and empathetic to the Homo sapiens who reared him. When Lithgow, his mind increasingly absent, tries to spear his morning eggs with the handle of his fork, Caesar tenderly turns it tines-forward. From such small, beautifully judged moments, the film constructs a psyche that is a mirror of our own, yet different. Without lapsing into sentimentality, it makes us care about this creature.

When Caesar lashes out in reaction to a perceived threat to his human clan, he's put in an ape sanctuary operated by a businesslike father (Brian Cox) and his loathsome son (Tom Felton). He resents his separation from Will, and the harsh education he receives in lockdown hardens him. The film takes on the shape of a prison drama as Caesar struggles to adjust to a community of mostly antagonistic apes. The seamless computer-generated effects communicate every flicker of anger and melancholy in his expressive eyes. One old orangutan, a circus castoff, scoffs at Caesar's plan to organize an escape. “Apes stupid,” it signs. Caesar, every bit the leader his name implies, sets out to prove otherwise.

The selling point of the film is apes rioting, and director Rupert Wyatt (whose last credit was the prison-break thriller “The Escapist” [大獵逃]) delivers what we expect and more. The action scenes peppered throughout the film are all integral to the plot and packed with real menace. The apes are as fully individualized as the convict-soldiers in “The Dirty Dozen” (決死突擊隊), and their assault on San Francisco is simply electrifying. Tellingly, it isn't a bloodthirsty revenges strike, but a fight for freedom. Wyatt stages the ape insurrection with nail-biting suspense and excitement.

Best of all, the film trusts us with morally ambiguous situations. The bad humans don't wear black capes, and the wronged apes aren't cloyingly noble. Their ferocity is barely held in check, and a clever moment reminds us that a quasi-fascist state will follow their revolution. Finally we have the thinking person's blockbuster of summer 2011. ■

► Directed by Rupert Wyatt / With James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Tom Felton and Andy Serkis / Sci-Fi / USA / 2011 / 105 min. / Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language / English with Chinese subtitles / ★★★☆☆ / Now Showing

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