The night before last Charles and I had watched the DVD version of an excellent recent film that had got much better reviews than one expects from a popcorn blockbuster that’s a “reboot” of a franchise dating back to 1968: Rise of the Planet of the Apes, not a deathlessly great movie but a solid piece of entertainment that shows how good the modern sci-fi action movie can be in the right hands. The extensive hype on this film when it was released last year made virtually all America aware of its plot, but in case you’ve been living in Timbuktu since this film was released last August, here goes: scientist Will Rodman (James Franco, who should have learned all about discoveries that go horribly wrong from his stint in the Spider-Man movies) works for a giant pharmaceutical company and has developed a proposed treatment for Alzheimer’s called ALZ-112. It’s reached the stage where it’s ready for trials in chimpanzees, only one of the test chimps, Bright Eyes, goes out of control, crashes the company’s board meeting (at which Rodman was going to ask that the drug be given human trials) and triggers an order from Rodman’s supervisor, department head Steven Jacobs (played by Black actor David Oyelowo and named after the producer of the original run of Planet of the Apes movies, Arthur Jacobs), to terminate the project and have all the chimps who’d been given ALZ-112 “put down.” Rodman manages to keep Bright Eyes from this fate long enough for her to give birth to a baby chimp whom he names Caesar — he reasons that she freaked out not because of an adverse drug reaction but because she was protecting her unborn cub — and he takes Caesar home with him. He also steals some ampules containing ALZ-112 and injects them into his father, Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), whose own battle with Alzheimer’s had inspired Will’s research; Charles recovers but his gains are temporary and he soon slips back into Alzheimer’s-related dementia. Meanwhile, Will raises Caesar as if he were a human child, and the ape develops cognitive capabilities beyond those of human babies of the same age. He also takes Caesar with him as if he were his own son, and on one of those excursions — a trip to Muir Woods in Marin County, just north of San Francisco — the two have a meet-cute with Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto), who eventually becomes Will’s girlfriend and Caesar’s co-parent.
Only this bizarre family grouping comes to an abrupt end when Caesar fights back against a taunting neighbor and gets sent to the San Bruno facility for rebellious primates — by this time, in a rather awkward jump cut that’s an exception to the generally excellent direction by Rupert Wyatt, Caesar has gone from being played by a real baby chimp to being Andy Serkis, once again undergoing “motion capture” as he did as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings and Kong in the most recent King Kong remake, so he looks absolutely credible as a full-grown chimp while still retaining the ability to move, take direction and act like a human performer. (20th Century-Fox was planning an Academy Award campaign for Serkis, claiming that it’s time to recognize motion capture as a form of live human acting as legitimate as any other, but that went precisely nowhere with the Screen Actors’ Guild — and in the movie, though he’s obviously far more credible than Roddy MacDowell, Kim Hunter, Maurice Evans and the other inhabitants of those outrageously phony ape suits in the original films, it’s unclear, to say the least, whether Caesar’s powerful facial expressions are the work of Andy Serkis or the digital animators who “ape-ified” him.) San Bruno, which is the sort of facility Charles Dickens would have dreamed up had he taken up animal rights as a cause, puts Caesar in contact with other apes for the first time and also oppresses him so much that he rebels and uses his superior intellect to organize the other apes to fight back. He also teaches them how to speak via sign language (it seems odd that this movie would come out at around the same time as Project Nim, a documentary about the “Nim Chimpsky” experiment that pretty much debunked the idea that apes can acquire human language and communicate via sign) and eventually he’s able to expose them to the latest generation of the wonder drug, ALZ-113, producing a whole race of super-intelligent giant apes.
From this point the movie essentially becomes a horror film, a successor to Them! and the other 1950’s movies in which humankind was faced with giant invasion forces from ordinarily unthreatening terrestrial animals which had become either artificially intelligent or way bigger than normal (or both) due to exposure to atomic radiation. Director Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are able to strike a delicate balance, giving the apes the capability to strategize without making them so smart that they can handle advanced human weapons; in the climactic fight scene on the Golden Gate Bridge the apes outpoint the humans through sheer animal instinct, improvising crude clubs and projectiles from the materials at hand rather than actually stealing the humans’ guns. Meanwhile, back at the drug company, the people in charge have given ALZ-113 to humans without realizing that it has a vicious side effect in people that it doesn’t have in apes: it gives them a plague-like disease that causes virtually certain death, though it keeps them alive long enough for them to spread the artificial virus that’s at the heart of the treatment, which turns out to be casually communicable and airborne. The movie ends not only with the apes kicking our butts in the first battle of the species but with a chilling post-credits sequence showing the speed with which modern air travel allows the disease to spread worldwide (an interesting postlude to our recent viewing of the smallpox movie The Killer That Stalked New York — here it’s a man-made virus that’s stalking the entire world and obviously setting up a sequel in which virtually the entire human race dies out and the apes take over).
What’s remarkable about Rise of the Planet of the Apes is that it’s consistently entertaining and gripping start-to-finish; the exposition is genuinely interesting and compelling drama and the whole piece comes off as a well-integrated, exciting movie rather than a work of action-porn with insufferably dull scenes setting up the action highlights. It’s also gratifying to see James Franco in the lead of a major-studio blockbuster; I still think the Spider-Man movies would have been better with him as Spider-Man and Tobey Maguire (who was actually considered for Franco’s role here) as his friend-turned enemy instead of the other way around — and though Franco has established an odd alternate niche playing real-life Queers in biopics (so far he’s done James Dean, Allen Ginsberg and Hart Crane!), here he’s credible as both an intellectual and an action hero (a balance most actors, especially modern ones, can’t manage) and he remains quite easy on the eyes. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is everything a modern-day blockbuster should be: a compelling premise, veiled social commentary, strong acting (the performances by the malevolent neighbor and the nasty blond guy who terrorizes Caesar at San Bruno stand out, as does Lithgow’s work as the father and the appealing Freida Pinto — and fortunately we’ve reached far enough into the 21st century that a major movie can depict an interracial relationship and nobody either in the film or the audience makes a big deal about it!) and, above all, taut direction that never lets the excitement flag — and a total running time of 105 minutes (long enough to do the story justice, short enough not to stretch it out longer than it can sustain) rather than the 135 minutes or even longer Andy Serkis’s previous employer, Peter Jackson, would have wasted on this story if he’d been in charge.