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TALKIN’ ’BOUT A (R)EVOLUTION | Bears may be common to in the Castro, but chimps take over the Golden Gate bridge in ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes.’

Andy Serkis’ masterful monkey business is the 800-lb. gorilla in the room making ‘Apes’ worth a look

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor
jones@dallasvoice.com

The 1968 film Planet of the Apes was sci-fi at its low-tech best: A human astronaut crash-lands on a world run by talking monkeys in the Iron Age of their society — brutal, feudal, violent. It’s like a Roman sword-and-sandal movie that begins on a spaceship. It’s grimly futuristic and innately visceral, and even today, long after you’ve learned the Big Reveal (the planet is Earth in the future, post nuclear winter), addictively watchable nonsense.

Well, Rise of the Planet of the Apes got the nonsense part right, but a few things else as well, though those seem lucked upon. Unlike its progenitor, it’s a Science Gone Mad sci-fi extravaganza, Frankensteinien in its concept of good intentions unregulated by consequences. (To be fair, it’s a fitting update: During the Cold War, we worried about The Bomb; today, anthrax and genetically engineered chemical warfare are far more frightening.)

A scientist (James Franco) hopes to develop a drug to cure Alzheimer’s (from which, coincidentally, his dad, John Lithgow, suffers!) but his soulless big pharma employer won’t back him. So James experiments on his own with a genetically superior chimp named Caesar, inventing a miracle drug which contains a supervirus the human body can’t kill off and ruin its therapeutic benefits. (Let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.)

The science scenes, complete with the money-grubbing boss, are about as bad as lazy sci-fi gets (think Splice), and much of the plotting feels recycled from every primate-loving movie from King Kong to Project X. (There are also more chimps in one facility in this movie than are probably in every zoo in North America.) But you soon realize how little all that matters when Andy Serkis gets to do his thing.

Serkis played Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films, and Kong in the remake of King Kong — not in a costume, but in a motion-capture suit that precisely reflects his movements, including facial expressions, and converts them into CGI reality. (All the apes in the film are digital.) That means the chimps seem far more human than their masters, with genuine emotions and personalities that rarely register on the cookie-cutter villains. It’s weird to realize you’re rooting for the species that will eventually enslave us.

The result is that Franco eventually becomes irrelevant plot-wise, as Rise moves from the category of beauty-of-nature film to Scarface Meets X-Men: Caesar’s so smart, he methodically develops an army of chimps to follow him. (I kept expecting him to say to Franco, “Never ask me about my business.”)

Rise isn’t great , but it is entertaining and will probably piss off creationists to no end. That, along with Serkis’ remarkable FX-enhanced performance, is reason enough to see it.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition August 9, 2011.

—  Kevin Thomas