What is it with apes? Last summer, Rick Moody published a novel with a lengthy subplot about an intelligent ape who has a crush on his female caretaker. Then, in February, debut novelist Benjamin Hale gave us The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, nearly 600 pages narrated by another unnaturally smart chimpanzee. Hale’s creation not only lusts after his human trainer, but provides graphic details of their liaisons (to the dismay of some readers).
Now, perhaps coincidentally and perhaps not, Hollywood brings us a “reboot” of the well-worn Planet of the Apes series. James Franco is top billed, but make no mistake: The film’s protagonist is a simian, and he’s more compelling than the hero of virtually any other flick this summer. Perhaps that’s because Caesar — a digital creation modeled on the human expressions of actor Andy Serkis — is no less than the Spartacus of chimps. Mercifully for the audience, however, he’s too busy liberating his fellow apes to express any interest in interspecies romance.
The 1968 Charlton Heston film established that 38th-century Earth will be ruled by loquacious apes, while Homo sapiens is reduced to hunting and grunting. How did this happen? The 1972 sequel Conquest of the Planet of the Apes offered one version of a near-future simian takeover; Rise offers another. Like an old-school science-fiction flick, the film is surprisingly character driven until a final rousing action sequence, and that’s all to the good.
Franco plays a scientist messing around with DNA, as Hollywood-handsome scientists are wont to do, trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s disease, which afflicts his father (John Lithgow). After the virus he’s testing has frightening effects on a subject, ending the project, Franco rescues the subject’s offspring, Caesar. He raises him at home, where the young chimp’s altered DNA quickly manifests itself in intelligence exceeding a human child’s. That’s good news for the scientist, but not for the ape, who’s destined to a life of condescendingly offered bananas and incarceration by his intellectual inferiors.
Like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Rise transfers our sympathy from the well-meaning scientist to the supposed “monster” he created, putting us in Caesar’s place as he learns that his human “father” can’t shield him from the cruelties of life. (They include Tom Felton, still working his Draco Malfoy sneer, as the sadistic employee of a primate refuge.)
It’s indicative of Weta Digital’s achievement with motion-capture technology that we never question the reality of Caesar, or of the other apes he eventually recruits for his liberation movement. While the film has its campy moments — such as a callout to the most famous line of the 1968 film — they don’t come from the special effects. Director Rupert Wyatt, who made prison thriller The Escapist, wisely keeps his action setpieces straightforward, so audiences know what’s happening and whom they’re rooting for.
And it’s not who you’d expect. Like Avatar and District 9, Rise pulls off the trick of making audiences cheer for nonhumans against humans by appealing to basic human nature: People root for clever underdogs. People like to fantasize about swinging through the trees, or scaling the struts of the Golden Gate Bridge. People wish they could stop worrying about collapsing financial markets and just enjoy a panoramic view from the top of a redwood. People wonder how their supposedly superior intelligence got them here. Maybe that’s the secret of the ape literary trend.
Of course, once the apes take over, they’ll have their own stupid problems. We’ll see in the sequel.
* Running time: 105 min.
* Rated: PG-13