'Apes' prequel proves itself an action-packed thriller

"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a thoughtful, action-packed science fiction thriller, works best if you think of it as a prequel to Charlton Heston's original 1968 "Planet of the Apes," and not Tim Burton's disappointing 2001 remake with Mark Wahlberg.

"Rise" not only fits in nicely with the mythology generated by the original series of five "Apes" movies, it does exactly what smart science-fiction features do: reminds us that it's not nice to fool Mother Nature, and that there can be major repercussions for scientific hubris.

Like wiping out humanity.

"Rise" also represents a major leap for the art and craft of performance-capture technology by WETA, the New Zealand company that has amazed us with its character work on James Cameron's "Avatar" and Peter Jackson's "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Still, performance capture has a way to go. Despite the high quality of the performance-capture animation in several close-ups, many other computer-generated primates have the same problem as the kids from "The Polar Express" - there's something a little unsettling and creepy about them.

"Rise" gives a virtual starring role to Andy Serkis, who lept to international stardom by portraying the mysterious Gollum in Jackson's trilogy.

Here, Serkis portrays Caesar, the chimpanzee that develops super intelligence after being exposed to an engineered virus that scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) hopes will become the cure to Alzheimer's disease.

For him, the search for the cure is personal. His musician father Charles (John Lithgow) suffers from Alzheimer's.

Rodman works at a testing facility where the profits-driven manager, Jacobs (David Oyelowo), orders all of their test apes destroyed after one chimp goes berserk following exposure to the virus.

Nobody apparently noticed that the chimp had been pregnant and left a baby behind.

Rodman can't bring himself to euthanize the cute little chimp. He brings it home where it bonds with Charles, who names the baby Caesar.

Eventually, Rodman befriends a chimp vet named Caroline (the comely Freida Pinto), who apparently has no purpose in this movie other than to give Rodman a girlfriend. (When the story leaps ahead five years, Rodman and Caroline still appear to be vaguely dating.)

Problems begin when a grown Caesar protects Charles from an unfriendly neighbor by attacking him. The chimp winds up in the slammer: San Bruno Primate Sanctuary run by John Landon (Brian Cox) and a naughty employee named Dodge ("Harry Potter" co-star Tom Felton).

Dodge likes to torment animals while quoting Charlton Heston's dialogue from "Planet of the Apes."

"It's a madhouse!" Dodge screeches as he power-hoses the defenseless Caesar.

(Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver stuff their screenplay with so many corny references to the original "Apes" that it threatens to become an insider's comedy of allusions for hard-core fans of the series. Do we really need to see a TV clip of Heston from "The Agony and the Ecstasy?")

Caesar goes on to lead a rebellion of virus-infected smart apes in a comical scene where Landon surprises them while holding what resembles a secret union meeting.

"Rise" rises to the level of a rarity in science-fiction films, one that juxtaposes touching humanity with spectacular action set pieces.

Beware that TV commercials and trailers show us the whole movie in Cliffs Notes form, even the ending. So, expect no major surprises here. (Granted, this is a problem with 20th Century Fox's marketing department, not the filmmakers.)

One more thing: Stick around after the closing credits for a tag that neatly ties up a major loose end, and gives us a finale almost worthy of the one in the 1968 original.

Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) says goodbye to his friend Caesar the chimpanzee near the end of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”

<b>“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”</b>

★ ★ ★

Starring: James Franco, John Lithgow, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, Freida Pinto, Andy Serkis

Directed by: Rupert Wyatt

Other: A 20th Century Fox release. Rated PG-13 for language, sexual situations, violence. 105 minutes