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Primates Plunder San Francisco in Delightful Return to 'Planet of the Apes'

James Franco unwittingly shifts the balance of power from man to animal in Rupert Wyatt's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, opening tonight at the AMC Van Ness and the Century San Francisco Centre 9.

“Ten years from now, it will be the 1968 version that people are still renting.” So predicted Roger Ebert, after Tim Burton’s scattershot Planet of the Apes remake, released a decade ago this summer, did more to discredit primates than Charlton Heston ever could.

Whether the stench of that earlier experiment still lingers could help determine the future of a still-vital franchise, confidently revived this week in Rupert Wyatt’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes.

Ebert was right, of course. Today, Burton’s outing is remembered as a regrettable footnote in the saga of French novelist Pierre Boulle’s highly evolved simians, who pool their collective strength to take back the planet, enslaving humans in the process. Yet Rise, an origins story set in and around present-day San Francisco, deserves a more prestigious legacy.

The mystery is not whether the apes we meet early on – test subjects at the Gen-Sys lab, where pioneering researcher Will Rodman (James Franco) is working on a cure for Alzheimer’s – will break free to strike back at their human oppressors. (That much is made clear in the movie’s trailers, which tease a breathless helping of gorilla warfare atop the Golden Gate Bridge.)

Rise focuses on the fateful events that provoke the primates to revolt, led by Caesar (Andy Serkis), a primate blessed with an ever-escalating IQ thanks to Rodman’s experimental brain candy. More than any of the movie’s angry apes, Caesar, whom Rodman initially raises like a son, is sympathetic to the human plight.

Yet locked away in a San Bruno primate shelter after a violent outburst, he begins to identify more with his fellow prisoners – powerful, intelligent creatures held back only by their inability to communicate. In a moment of revelation, both for Caesar and the guards who watch over him, he clears that hurdle, uttering his first word and sending Wyatt’s tightly constructed thriller into overdrive.

As pure spectacle, Rise is on a par with Burton’s model, which brilliantly updated the look of the original Apes, rendering the damn, dirty beasts with such grace and painstaking clarity you forget you’re watching CGI. In all other respects, it is a dramatic improvement.

Easily the most polished of the sequels, prequels and reboots inspired by Franklin Schaffner’s original – and most similar in tone to 1972’s Conquest – the movie delivers a smart, mostly plausible backstory and a star, in Caesar, whom Serkis (Gollum in Lord of the Rings) portrays with deftly nuanced emotion.

When the apes attack, it’s natural to side with man, much as we’re loath to condone his own brand of savagery. It’s a testament to Wyatt, Serkis and Weta Digital’s crack animation, then, that Rise feels more like cause for celebration than the first step toward humanity’s eventual extinction.