Audacious, violent and disquieting, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a summer sequel that's better than it has any right to be. This movie about how apes rise up against the humans who would trap them, cage them and use them in medical experiments is a stunning job of back-engineering the familiar "Planet of the Apes" story and another leap forward in performance capture animation.
As alarming and sometimes bloody as it is, "Rise" doesn't require a "No apes were harmed in the making of this movie" credit. They're all digital, a performance capture cast led by Andy Serkis (Gollum in "Lord of the Rings") that is so convincing as to render every earlier ape "Planet" movie camp. Not that they weren't already.
"Rise" tells the story of Caesar, the son of a smart chimpanzee made even smarter by a viral serum given to him by a scientist, Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco) in pursuit of a cure for his father's (John Lithgow) Alzheimer's disease. When the corporate boss (David Oyelowo) decides the current test-crop of apes is "contaminated" and must be "put down," Will takes Caesar home and raises him as one of the family. Dad gives him the name Caesar. And when Caesar's intelligence shows, Will gives Dad the drug and seemingly cures his degenerative brain disease.
Early scenes of Caesar gamboling through the rafters of their big, old San Francisco two-story are reminiscent of Disney's animated "Tarzan," long swooping takes of the chimp swinging, clambering, leaping and frolicking. When Will meets a cute and sympathetic zoo vet (Freida Pinto) they even take Caesar to the Muir Woods park to climb the redwoods. But Caesar is still a wild, impulsive and sometimes violent animal, prone to escape and annoy the neighbors. And the vet has a word of warning: "It's appropriate to be afraid of them."
Serkis, the king of motion capture acting, gives Caesar a cautious physicality and a wary hooded stare. And the animators capture the glint of intelligence in his eyes. The film's first electric moment is a glance between doctor and ape as the now-adult Caesar sees and understands, the instant Will does, that his father is regressing back into Alzheimer's.
Director Rupert Wyatt stages the film's second half -- Caesar's imprisonment in a "primate shelter" -- with prison movie verve, letting us imagine how he will establish himself in his cell block and how he might stage his coup de chimp.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" uses standard-issue animal care cliches that are exactly the same as those in "Zookeeper" -- from the sexy veterinarian to the cruel zookeepers (Tom Felton and Brian Cox).
It's clever enough to summon up memories of Pierre Boulle's Vietnam War-era sci-fi novel and make you ponder it as moral and racial parable. And it's so brilliantly executed as to render the original version of this part of the apes' story (1972's "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes") laughable, and Tim Burton's handsome remake of the original "Planet of the Apes" forgettable.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES
3 1/2 stars (out of 4)
STARRING: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Freida Pinto, Brian Cox, Tom Felton
DIRECTOR: Rupert Wyatt
RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes
RATING: Rated PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence.
THE LOWDOWN: An experimental drug that creates super-intelligence in apes starts an unlikely war.