The original Planet of the Apes was definitely scary (if a bit cheesy), and did a good job of challenging our arrogant assumptions of primate superiority. But as the series cycled through numerous sequels, all those extras running around in ape suits became pretty silly. Which brings us to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, an “origins” tale that benefits greatly from the so-called motion-capture technology that allows the fusion of a facially expressive human actor with a digital overlay of ape-ness that is extremely convincing. The result is a classic B-movie, one that splices together sci-fi genes with all the tropes of a prison movie — but one where the “prisoners” are apes that have the acting chops of tough-guy hacks like Telly Savalas and Ernest Borgnine.
As with many a sci-fi movie, this is a cautionary tale about monkeying with Mother Nature. A geneticist named Will Rodman (James Franco) is desperately trying to come up with a gene therapy that will defeat Alzheimer’s, thereby rescuing his ailing father (John Lithgow) from the grip of a dreadful disease. Research on chimps is going extremely well, until one of the test subjects goes berserk and has to be shot. The project is then temporarily shut down and the monkeys euthanized — all but an infant chimp that Will smuggles out of the lab and ends up raising secretly in his home.
Caesar turns out to be a remarkable creature — way smarter than a human child of the same age — because he’s inherited unexpected benefits from the experimental vaccine given to his mother. But Caesar eventually gets into big trouble when he savagely attacks a neighbour who threatens Will’s dad; he’s sent to a “primate rescue centre” that seems nice on the surface but is really a harsh prison that employs a young thug who mistreats the animals. Caesar, angry and increasingly intelligent, concocts an amazing revenge that results in an army of genetically enhanced apes breaking out of the primate penitentiary and rampaging through the streets of San Francisco with plans of throwing way more than just their feces at any humans who get in their way.
With its combination of a compassionate but misguided scientist and a greedy businessman who puts profits ahead of safety in the lab, the moral of the story is more than clear. What makes Rise fresh and engaging is the way in which Caesar (and the other simians) have such powerful screen presences. It’s not uncommon to project some human emotions onto animals, especially pets; but here the line separating us and them is almost erased and it can make for ironic and uncomfortable viewing as we watch Caesar being brutalized by a human with a literally smaller IQ.
This is more of a drama than an operatic sci-fi allegory, mostly because Rise operates on a small scale. The story is almost believable, and when the escape finally erupts it stays local rather than going global. (Although the climactic action sequences on the Golden Gate Bridge are gratifyingly spectacular.) In short, this is monkey business with a bigger brain. M
Rise of the Planet of the Apes ★★★
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
Starring James Franco, Frieda Pinto
PG 13- 110 minutes
Continues at Odeon, SilverCity & Westshore
Although a Bloody Caesar would be apt as a post-show drink, I’m going with the Funky Monkey. Essentially a smoothie with its party hat on, this Monkey requires you to put one banana, 2 ounces each of Kahlua and brandy, 5 ounces of ice cream and 1 ounce of milk into a blender. Now all you need is a thick straw, a pool and a chaise lounge.