The film doesn’t really concern the “rise” of a planet controlled by apes; it’s more like the birth. The five-film cycle of Planet of the Apes films, which presented itself as a time-loop Moebius strip, covered this in the fourth film, Conquest of the Planet of the Apes. I saw that when I was a kid, and don’t remember much about it, other than that a virus had killed off all dogs and cats and people kept apes as pets, who got tired of being servants, I guess.
This film, with a good script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, directed by Rupert Wyatt, hearkens back to a familiar science-fiction template–the hubris of the scientist. Following the long footsteps of Dr. Frankenstein, a biochemist played by James Franco has been working on a cure for Alzheimer’s. He has a personal reason for doing so, as his father (John Lithgow) suffers from the disease. He has tested a drug on chimpanzees which makes them extra smart. His initial subject is killed for being aggressive, but it turns out she left a baby.
That baby, called Caesar and featuring the motion-captured movements of Andy Serkis, turns out to be one smart chimp. Franco keeps him as a pet, and marvels at his brainpower. But when Caesar, defending Lithgow in a neighborhood squabble, gets sent to an ape refuge, he realizes he’s been had.
The sequences where Caesar plots his rebellion and escape are the best parts of the movie, and play like an old prison drama. It is here that nods are made to the original film, with two of the best-known lines being quoted, and even a cameo by Charlton Heston is inserted. I wonder how many got the joke that the orangutan was named Maurice, an obvious nod to actor Maurice Evans, who played Dr. Zeus in that old film.
The resulting show down on the Golden Gate bridge is tense and well-shot and edited, and has the best gorilla death scene since the original King Kong. Given the strong reviews and good business, a sequel, which is set up in the closing credits, should be forthcoming and worth watching.
As for the CGI, which replaces the notion of actors in monkey suits and makeup, I’m of two minds about it. During the opening scene, in which Caesar’s mother is capture in Africa, the obviousness of the special effects distracted me. There was never a moment I didn’t realize that I wasn’t looking at real chimps or gorillas or what have you. But when the apes were viewed close-up, the work with the eyes was effective, and made it seem as if we were looking at real characters. It was always possible to know what Caesar was thinking.
I also appreciated how the film, while being a good action flick, also addresses the slippery ethics of using animals as drug test subjects. I’m sure PETA has given their approval. Though it is science fiction, I am dubious about a drug that makes an ape smart over night. You’d think they’d have to have a little schooling first.
My grade for Rise of the Planet of the Apes: A-.