Unless you are completely willing to suspend disbelief that a chimpanzee wearing pants can lead a revolt of captive apes and take over the world, it is hard to pretend that the science fiction of Rise of the Planet of the Apes is at all feasible. But remember, this here writer is the one who totally digs movies with modern ice-ages (The Day After Tomorrow) and talking dogs who breakdance (any of the Buddies movies). Heck, Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems almost highbrow compared to some of the fantasy/sci-fi films that I shamelessly love. If you are nostalgic for the day when a square-jawed Charlton Heston hissed, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damn dirty ape!”, you will no doubt enjoy the surprisingly earnest and straight-faced reboot of the series.
Rumor has it that the CGI-apes in Rise are better actors than lead-human James Franco, and I have a hard time disagreeing. Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist on the verge of perfecting a drug (which is curiously referred to as a “virus”-take note) that accelerates mental capacity. Though the lab experiments on apes and chimps, the hope is to use it on humans as a cure for Alzheimers. A presentation of the drug goes very very wrong, as their star chimp flips out and has to be shot to death on a conference table surround by investors (oops). Will’s testing program quickly has the plug pulled. Turns out the test chimp went into a rage because she was hiding the fact that she had birthed a baby chimp in her cage. To avoid the baby getting put down with all the other test chimps, Will takes his experiments off the grid, bringing the baby, named Caesar, home with him.
Will, Caesar, and Will’s senile father (played by John Lithgow, in a touching, small role) live the idyllic family life. Will gets a cute veterinarian girlfriend (Frida Pinto), and secretly not only gives Caesar the drug, but also gives it to his father with amazing results. Doesn’t take long for Caesar to be eating at the table and signing witticisms to Will and grandpa, but Will’s dad is composing concertos at the piano. It doesn’t take a brilliant chimp to see that this idyllic scenario won’t last long (think that at least one of them will be suffering from a Flowers for Algernon reaction to the drug).
Without giving anything else away, half the fun is seeing how the plot leads to the intriguing scene from the movie’s trailer where a whole bunch of pissed-off apes terrorize drivers on the Golden Gate bridge. Despite the fact that some of the initial chimp CGI was not entirely seamless, it didn’t take long for me to fall for the wounded, hardened intelligence behind Caesar’s eyes. I don’t know how they did it, but it is not surprising that the filmmakers chose Andy Serkis (known for “humanizing” the CGI Gollum in Lord of the Rings) to make Caesar a believable character.
As for Franco? Well, he is kind of a blank slate. It’s as though he walked straight from his Oscar-hosting gig to the movie set. Funny enough, his best moment is actually in a still photograph of him hugging baby Caesar (maybe because it was a real ape, and he struggles to react to CGI?). But lucky for Franco, and especially for the audience, the ape characters are all the fun. Try not root for the angry silverback gorilla, or the orangutan who was previously a circus ape. It doesn’t take long for them to be distinguishable from one another, and who doesn’t want to root for the beasties? Rise of the Planet of the Apes plays its B-movie cards right, and is an intriguing reboot for the classic series. I can’t wait for the next one!