Dir: Rupert Wyatt. US. 2011. 105mins


A taut, emotionally satisfying origin story, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes may not be as action-packed as its fellow summer tentpoles, but the film’s slow, building tension makes it far more rewarding. Showing the beginnings of the ape rebellion that created the landscape for the 1968 Planet Of The Apes (based on the Pierre Boulle novel), director Rupert Wyatt deftly blends special effects and engaging characters, despite a few hiccups along the way.

Without any gore and only a little blood, the filmmakers do a superb job of slowly turning up the tension as Caesar starts to understand the full capabilities of his intelligence and strength

Opening August 5 in the US before quickly expanding across the globe, Rise will benefit from audiences’ familiarity with the Apes franchise, although a deep knowledge isn’t necessary to enjoy this prequel. James Franco’s high profile may be a bit of a double-edged sword – he’s recognizable as the host of an Oscars most thought was a disappointment – but good reviews could be an aide to a film that arrives as summer movie season winds to a close.

This Fox release, set in present-day San Francisco, details how scientist Will Rodman (Franco) raises a baby chimpanzee who’s the offspring of a test subject who seemed to hold the key to curing Alzheimer’s. But as the chimpanzee, named Caesar (Andy Serkis), grows up, his superior intelligence begins to make him question humanity’s dominance over apes.

Its rousing third-act action sequences notwithstanding, Rise is largely a story about the bond between Will and Caesar, which starts off affectionate but ends up strained as the chimp eventually becomes too big and dangerous to care for. On a logistical level, this relationship is all the more challenging since Caesar is a product of performance-capture technology, with effects mavens rendering the chimpanzee digitally based on Serkis’ mostly silent performance. And while the effects aren’t a complete success – Caesar looks a little too artificial to seem like a real ape – there is nonetheless a resonance in the character’s eyes and face that give him personality, which works well alongside Franco’s muted but effective turn as the kindly scientist.

Even though most moviegoers can essentially guess how Rise ends – this is a prequel to a rather well-known sci-fi classic that’s occasionally referenced with grating cheekiness – much of the film’s pleasure comes from watching Caesar’s gradual development from a sweet soul to a strong leader who turns his back on humanity and its cruel treatment of apes. Without any gore and only a little blood, the filmmakers do a superb job of slowly turning up the tension as Caesar starts to understand the full capabilities of his intelligence and strength, which feels like a ticking time bomb just waiting to detonate.

Wyatt’s last movie was the prison break film The Escapist, and in its own way Rise too is a story about a character trying to break free, although in this case it’s a chimp held in a pen. That’s just one of the genres Wyatt nicely juggles in Rise, considering that the third act resembles a monster movie or disaster film once the apes start to unleash spectacular havoc on San Francisco. While the ending ultimately comes across as too much of a pat table-setter for future sequels, the violent build-up that leads to it seems fully motivated by what Caesar has endured.

As good as the central relationship between Will and Caesar is, the supporting characters are either one-note or nonexistent. David Oyelowo overplays his role as the profit-obsessed head of a pharmaceutical company where Will works, although he’s not nearly as hammy as Tom Felton, who goes distressingly over the top as a sadistic ape caretaker. John Lithgow reins in his usual outlandishness to play Will’s ailing father, but Freida Pinto is barely an afterthought as Will’s love interest. In truth, Rise’s love story isn’t between Will and her but, really, between Will and the chimp whose heart he breaks.

Production companies: Dune Entertainment, Chernin Entertainment

Domestic distribution: Twentieth Century Fox, www.foxmovies.com

Producers: Peter Chernin, Dylan Clark, Rick Jaffa, Amanda Silver

Executive producer: Thomas M. Hammel

Screenplay: Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver

Cinematography: Andrew Lesnie

Production designer: Claude Pare

Editors: Conrad Buff, Mark Goldblatt

Music: Patrick Doyle

Website: www.apeswillrise.com

Main cast: James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Andy Serkis