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A Monkey Shines

by Ross Douthat

A review of Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I did not intend to review Rise of the Planet of the Apes. From afar, it looked like just another late-summer dud, an even more disposable reimagining of a beloved franchise than the dreary Apes reboot that Tim Burton and Mark Wahlberg attempted in 2001. Its star, the overexposed James Franco, even badmouthed the movie a month before it opened, telling a Playboy interviewer that “I never thought of this movie as an example of my creativity. I was an actor for hire,” while predicting that hostile critics would blame him for the finished product.

He was wrong. The critics were favorable, the box-office numbers were excellent, and I found myself belatedly rushing out to see what everybody liked so much.

What I found was a too-rare commodity these days: a clever, swift-moving, creative summer blockbuster, in which the plot wheels turns briskly and the special effects exist to serve the story rather than the other way around. In a landscape overcrowded with sequels and prequels and remakes, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a rare reimagining that wears its unoriginality lightly, having a breezy kind of fun with its more famous antecedents rather than oscillating (as the Burton remake did) between slavish imitation and failed revisionism.

It’s also a rare summer blockbuster with soul. That soul doesn’t belong to any of its human characters, who are serviceable but two-dimensional: Franco as Will Rodman, a well-meaning genetics researcher testing a dementia cure on apes; John Lithgow as Rodman’s senile, fading father; Freida Pinto as his veterinarian girlfriend; and David Oyelowo as his profit-hungry boss. Rather, it belongs to the chimpanzee revolutionary Caesar, who’s brought to vivid life by Andy Serkis (the man who gave us Gollum) and the power of motion-capture computer animation.

Motion capture still can’t quite animate human faces without making them either caricatured or creepy. But it can work marvels with the nearly human, from Ring-ravaged hobbits to genetically enhanced apes. When we first meet him, as a baby chimp, Caesar looks a little bit too cute, with the sheen of computer wizardry instead of the natural shagginess of life. But as he ages and makes the transition from pet to son to rebel, the digital body that’s woven around Serkis’s acting somehow acquires both intelligence and pathos: the monkey as tragic hero, all too aware of his high and lonely destiny.

The tragedies start early, when Caesar’s mother is kidnapped from her African habitat by poachers and sold to Rodman’s Bay Area pharmaceutical company, where she becomes a test subject for a brain-repairing Alzheimer’s therapy. Brain repair turns out to lead to brain enhancement, and Mrs. Caesar is soon whipping through puzzles that would daunt most of the moviegoing public. But even a high-IQ ape can still go ape, and when she gives birth to her even more intelligent son, a burst of maternal protectiveness gets her shot dead and the experiment shut down.

That’s when Franco’s scientist makes the fateful choice to take the baby home and raise him in the San Francisco suburbs, teaching him sign language and building a kind of nursery in his attic, with rafters to swing from and a round window through which Caesar can stare out at the human world. Soon the rafters are supplemented by the Muir Woods Redwood Forest, which becomes the ape’s daytime playground and the setting for some of the movie’s many bravura visual sequences. Meanwhile, Franco’s Rodman keeps experimenting with the wonder drug, using his father as his test patient — and, for a time, Lithgow’s character seems to make a full recovery from Alzheimer’s, which supplies Caesar with a human grandfather as well.

But this idyll, too, ends in tragedy, when Caesar’s primate instincts lead to violence, an intervention from Animal Control, and imprisonment in an ape “sanctuary” that’s really run as a sadistic prison. If the phase of the movie in which Caesar grows from babe to ape resembles the recent documentary Project Nim, about a failed 1970s attempt to rear a chimpanzee as a human child, the phase in the ape sanctuary resembles Escape From Alcatraz, with Caesar using his superior smarts to rally his fellow simians against a brutal zookeeper (the always reliable Brian Cox) and his vicious son (Tom Felton, the Harry Potter movies’ Draco Malfoy). Meanwhile, Rodman persuades his boss to restart animal testing, creating a version 2.0 of the drug and a larger cohort of intelligent chimps. And neither, it turns out, is good news for humanity . . .

I’ll leave things there: The mechanics of the plot (including a swift and terrifying post-credits sequence that hints at an apocalypse to come) are one of the pleasures of the movie. So are the nods to the 1960s original: a Charlton Heston movie playing in the ape-sanctuary office, a Statue of Liberty toy in Caesar’s paw, and headlines in the San Francisco newspapers about a spaceflight to Mars that’s recently gone missing.

To be sure, those nods are also reminders that nothing in Rise of the Planet of the Apes quite matches the thinking man’s B-movie frisson of the Charlton Heston original. But this is still a worthy successor to a classic film, and these days, that’s rare enough to be worth celebrating.

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