Part reboot, part origin story, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is the first "Planet of the Apes" film to take place amid the trappings of contemporary human society.
Previous entries were set on a far-future Earth ruled by sentient, highly verbal apes after humans had devolved into mute, dumb beasts. It was a world in which the animals had become their betters. This time around, the humans are still in charge. But the presence of so many walking, talking, well-dressed Homo sapiens only serves to diminish the film's humans relative to its apes.
The movie's digital primates have so much more depth, smarts and soul than their less furry counterparts that it's all too easy to root for their inevitable victory. At times, the movie's self-actualizing apes are so startlingly affecting that it raises the question of whether the humans are really necessary at all.
This isn't the first time the apes have stolen the show. When the original "Planet of the Apes" was released in 1968, it offered audiences an eerie science-fiction conceit backed by groundbreaking make-up effects. Charlton Heston's ape-damning human space commander may have gotten the best lines, but the apes - and the innovative prosthetic makeup that helped make them real - were the true stars.
Like its predecessor, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a high-concept event picture with something to say: The original dealt with power dynamics, out-group oppression and the rigidity of social hierarchies. But the question at the heart of the movie was as basic as the golden rule: How would humans feel if they were no longer Earth's dominant intelligent species?
"Rise's" origin story is less an exercise in role-reversal than a twist on the Frankenstein myth, in which man's greatest creations rise up against their masters. Its simian coming-of-age story follows the birth, life and self-realization of Caesar, an ape raised in captivity by zoo vet Caroline (Freida Pinto) and Will Rodman (James Franco), a human scientist developing an Alzheimer's cure.
Rodman's drug endows Caesar with intelligence equal to his human creator, and at first, Caesar's newfound comprehension allows the two to bond. But after a violent incident results in Caesar being locked up in a jail-like primate preserve run by a cruel keeper (Brian Cox), their relationship sours and Caesar finds his place as the first among apes.
That's also where the movie gains its own strength. In a surprisingly clever genre twist, director Rupert Wyatt stages the movie's midsection in the form of a classic jailbreak - except the escapees are glowering, wordless apes.
Mr. Wyatt is aided by yet another stunning virtual performance from motion-capture master Andy Serkis, who did similar computer-enhanced work as the creature Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" films. As with that role, the actor's face and body language were captured and digitally converted into Caesar's movements and facial expressions. Like the actors in the first "Planet of the Apes," Mr. Serkis is wearing a form of prosthetic - the difference is that this one's digital. It's gripping all the same.
If only the same were true of the actors whose faces the audience can see.
Mr. Franco's obsessed scientist is a glum sideshow. Neither Mr. Cox's heartless zookeeper and nor his sinister son really register. A drug company suit played by David Oyelowo is textbook capitalist scum. Anyone who's been to the movies has seen all these stock characters before.
But we've never seen anything quite like Caesar, an ape who becomes more human than his creators. After seeing Mr. Serkis' groundbreaking work here, it's not so hard to imagine a world in which apes really have overtaken mankind: Up against his brutal, brilliant portrayal of Caesar, none of the film's human actors stand a chance.
TITLE: "Rise of the Planet of the Apes"
CREDITS: Directed by Rupert Wyatt, screenplay by Amanda Silver and Rick Jaffa
RATING: PG-13 for angry ape attacks
RUNNING TIME: 110 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS