Dave on film: Monkeying around can be fun
What if there was a research drug in the laboratory right now that had a good chance of curing Alzheimer's but it needed more testing on animals before it could be released for human trials? And what if that same neurogenesis drug made its research subjects smarter? That's the premise of the exciting and surprisingly thoughtful Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Will Rodman (James Franco) is the lead genetic researcher working on the miracle drug for Gen Sys Corporation, but he has a driving motivation of his own: his father (John Lithgow) is rapidly descending into dementia.
Clinical trials for the ALZ-112 drug go well, but when they inadvertently treat a pregnant chimpanzee then separate her from her newborn, she goes on a rampage and the project is shut down. Except for Caesar, the baby chimp who Rodman takes home to prevent it being killed. Caesar turns out to be an extraordinarily intelligent chimp but after an incident where he attacks a neighbor who was assaulting the now-cured father he's sent to monkey jail, the San Bruno Primate Shelter.
Not only does Caesar not like the primate shelter, but is also constantly taunted by malevolent employee Dodge Landon (Tom Felton). Enough is enough, and he escapes, steals some of the more powerful ALZ-113 from Rodman's house then goes back and exposes the hundred or so primates at the Shelter to the drug. The stage is set and the monkeys break out en masse.
The original 1968 Planet of the Apes is an iconic science fiction film, with its iconic imagery notably including Col. Taylor (Charlton Heston) finding a half-buried Statue of Liberty on a beach in the monkey-dominated future Earth. I'd always wondered what happened for that to transpire and Rise of the Planet of the Apes does a good job of explaining, even through some vital information the happens in the last two or three minutes of the film.
One of the challenges of creating a prequel is that you have an end point but typically don't have a starting point. In this case the starting point was present day America and the end was what Taylor and his crew found when they crash landed on future Earth in Planet of the Apes. Weaving the two together is a tricky business, and it's done very well in this film, with hints and nods to earlier story elements.
At one point there's a TV news broadcast about a spaceship on the first manned mission to Mars and it wasn't until a few minutes later that I realized that was the very mission that Taylor and his crew were on when they cryogenically froze for a few hundred years before crash landing in the earlier film. Smart. This is a big budget action film, but it's still worth paying attention to the smallest of details too, including newspaper headlines.
There are also two simians that are introduced in Rise of the Planet of the Apes that play significant roles in the earlier Planet of the Apes film too: Cornelius and Zaius, though the latter is never named.
The neurogenesis drug ALZ-112 causes a reversal in Alzheimer's, but the later drug 113 isn't quite so beneficial to humans, though it dramatically improves the intelligence of simians when Caesar steals some and exposes his monkey brethren to it. Therein lies another seed to what happened to cause man to lose his primacy. Pay attention to the closing credits too, to fully recognize what the filmmakers are suggesting transpired, and try not to draw too many parallels to a popular theory about the simian basis of AIDS.
There are a number of scientific and medical protocol breaches during the story that were a bit frustrating, but certainly nowhere near as ridiculous as the daft Splice had (see my review of Splice for details of what I mean). Still, what credible medical researcher tries out an essentially untested drug on his own father?
There are a number of scenes shot in Muir Woods, just north of San Francisco. During those scenes it's clear just what a good job actor Andy Serkis does as Caesar. Then again, he's the same person who brought Gollum to life in the epic Lord of the Rings trilogy -- and won a Critics Choice Award for his performance -- so it's no surprise. Still, Rise of the Planet of the Apes ultimately depends on whether the simians are believable or not, and in 95 percent of the shots they really do seem like chimps, orangutans, apes, etc rather than CG creations or actors with heavy makeup.
Is it possible that humans will become the inferior race and generically smartened chimpanzees become the rulers of Earth? Probably not. But as the basis for a smart, exciting film that both fills in the backstory of a classic science fiction tale and acts as a fun movie in its own right, Rise of the Planet of the Apes proves a film well worth seeing.