Being so close, biologically, to Homo sapiens has been a mixed blessing for simians. Setting aside the fact that millions of us disavow any evolutionary connection to monkeys and apes, there’s a long, dishonorable tradition of using our cousins in pharmaceutical tests and bad TV commercials.
The shoe is on the other paw, so to speak, in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the delightful summer actioner in which a drug intended to relieve the deteriorating effects of Alzheimer’s also boosts intelligence in test chimps. Not only does this wonder drug boost brain power, it alters the chimps’ DNA in such a manner that the capacity for intelligence is passed “vertically” to their offspring.
This causes short-term adjustment problems for Caesar, the first brainy chimp. After a traumatic birth story, he grows up comfortably with the Big Pharma scientist who concocted the miracle drug (James Franco).
He’s charming: Caesar has the speed and agility of a chimp combined with the intelligence of a human child. More important for the movie, however, is that he’s a special effects, motion-capture wonder. Andy Serkis dons the effects suit again, and outdoes both King Kong and his chilling performance as Gollum, the most compelling character in the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy.
Serkis runs with it. This is Caesar’s story, and his progress from innocence to disillusionment to the cusp of triumph is entertaining as heck. (As chief human, Franco has the grace to know he isn’t the focal point of the story. This makes his performance more effective.) Ripped from his human home, Caesar’s thrown in with apes and forced to learn the harsh ways of his hairy brethren. Fights, struggles for dominance among the apes and battles against humans follow.
When the action really takes off, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is exhilarating. I loved the scene in which humans stared in disbelief as the trees above them shed leaves like rain; the ingenious cause was a mass of apes swinging, unseen, through the highest branches.
And yet there isn’t a real ape in the picture; they’re all CGI. Do they look “real”? Yes and no, but that’s the wrong question. Do the effects allow the suspension of disbelief? Absolutely.
You may be aware that this isn’t the first Planet of the Apes picture. Rupert Wyatt’s reimagining is respectful of and inspired by the 1960s and ’70s series of “apes” films, but stands on its own. (The filmmakers make many in-references to the original films while, sensibly, proceeding as if the 2001 Tim Burton version never happened.) The filmmakers also—of course—set things up for a series of sequels that one can look forward to without embarrassment.
Believe the hype. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is one of this summer’s best entertainments.