Rise of the Planet of the Apes
Beastly good: Newest ‘Apes’ a compelling sci-fi story of injustice
Excuse me while I revert to my 13-year-old self.
It’s 1971 and I’m sitting in the old Sack Cheri theater near the Prudential Tower, watching “Escape From the Planet of the Apes,’’ the third in the five-film series kicked off by 1968’s “Planet of the Apes.’’ It’s not a great movie, but it’s good enough, and, anyway, I don’t care. I’m 13! Talking apes from the future! Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter in semi-convincing latex humanoid chimp makeup! Cheap early-’70s sci-fi apocalypse! Pass the Junior Mints.
We know how bad the “Apes’’ movies can get (1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes’’ or Tim Burton’s ridiculous 2001 remake of the original, take your pick). So you may, like me, skulk into the new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes’’ expecting the worst. And you may, like me, be genuinely surprised by where this movie takes you. If you can get past some less-than-convincing CGI - a big if during the film’s early scenes - you may find yourself thoroughly emotionally invested in a drama about a downtrodden minority who unite behind a charismatic leader and rebel against their thoughtless overlords.
The apes, of course, are the downtrodden minority, and humans are the thoughtless overlords. It’s pretty amazing how quickly we can recalibrate our priorities and urge on our own destruction.
“Rise’’ essentially replaces the third and fourth “Apes’’ movies as an origin story of how those advanced simians came to be in the first place. And the answer this go-round is . . . gene therapy. Or a virus. Or both; I don’t know, pass the Junior Mints. Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is fast-tracking an Alzheimer’s cure to bring his ailing father (John Lithgow) back out of the fog, but when one of the chimps he has injected with his regenerative brain-cell virus goes ape, the experiment is shut down by his greedy-but-not-insane boss (David Oyelowo).
The chimp left behind a genetically superior infant, whom Will dubs Caesar and raises in secret. The initial scenes in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’’ especially those involving baby Caesar, put your heart in your stomach: The computer-generated simians - no latex makeup this time - sit right on the line of bogusness. It’s hard to buy into a movie when your hero looks like a cut-rate video game.
Caesar grows up, though, and the CGI improves - if you never lose sight that you’re watching something visually closer to a cartoon than a live-action film, the unexpectedly compelling story makes up for it. As the chimp hides in suburbia and slowly comes to understand how bad his kind have it, “Rise’’ becomes part “Frankenstein,’’ part “Spartacus,’’ and part “Rebel Without a Cause but With an Extra Chromosome.’’
By this point, Will has met a comely veterinarian named Caroline (Freida Pinto; and both my 13-year-old self and my adult self would be perfectly content if the movie was nothing but two hours of Pinto close-ups). Caesar, who can sign but not speak, has run afoul of the authorities and been remanded to an ape facility overlooking San Francisco Bay. “Rise’’ becomes a prison-yard drama, too, and it really starts to take off.
Franco is fine, Pinto is gorgeous, Brian Cox is amusingly shaggy as the facility manager, and Tom Felton - Draco Malfoy himself - is appropriately hissable as a sadistic young keeper begging for comeuppance. For all that, the real star of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes’’ is Andy Serkis, the British actor who has created some of the more indelible characters of our modern moviegoing age while rarely being seen. He provided the body language and voice of Gollum in “Lord of the Rings,’’ played King Kong in the 2005 remake, and he is the soul and skeleton on which director Rupert Wyatt and his team of merrie manipulators hang great Caesar’s ghost.
So you genuinely feel the chimp’s sorrow and betrayal when he’s marooned at the facility, and you feel his anger and growing power as he pulls the other prisoners into ranks (the smart orangutans, the obedient gorillas) and schemes to get them all doses of Will’s Miracle-Gro. And in the final scenes of “Rise,’’ climaxing in a remarkable pitched battle between unstoppable apes and panicky humans in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge, you get to watch a great soldier being born.
There are silly bits, plenty of them, and you are forgiven if you can’t access the proper level of sci-fi fanboy appreciation. Some audiences may not be able to get past the CGI at all, and for them there are always the original movies. This one references its forebears in many ways, from a glimpse of Charlton Heston in “The Agony and the Ecstasy’’ on TV to one of the original film’s more famous lines of dialogue popping up in the mouth of an unexpected character.
Interestingly, what informs this new version more than anything else - and certainly more than in any of the earlier movies - is outrage at the injustices mankind wreaks, on animals in general and our nearby genetic neighbors in particular. “Rise’’ is very consciously a drama about a Simian Spring, and it’s close enough in its details to a recent documentary to be thought of as “Project Nim: The Revenge.’’
Whatever you do, don’t let the apes see it. They’ll get ideas.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.