More than the apes are smart in "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." This smartly packaged prequel in the long-running simian series rejuvenates what had seemed like a tired franchise. Don't be surprised if these digitally created apes continue to rise in future installments.
What makes this latest ape movie work is that it adheres to traits that seem old-fashioned in the current summer movie marketplace. Working with a solidly crafted script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, director Rupert Wyatt oversees a deliberately paced, detail-oriented story.
The movie may not contain any great scripted surprises, but it deftly knows how to deliver the quasi-scientific goods. By the time the story escalates into ape-on-man violence, you're as immersed in the proceedings as any of the white lab-coat-clad researchers tinkering with the gene pool.
Unlike so many contemporary horror films, which immediately plunge into special-effects-reliant shocks, "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" understands the advantages of building up to the violence. It's also worth noting that the camera almost always cuts away from really gory action, because there are advantages to relying on the viewer's imagination to, er, flesh out the bloody consequences of angry apes.
That sense of restraint also comes across in the performance of James Franco as Will Rodman, a genetic researcher for a present-day, San Francisco-based corporation known as Gen-Sys. Franco plays it straight throughout the movie, even though the "Planet of the Apes" series has always had a campy quality to it.
Although his character inevitably has associations with mad scientists dating back to Dr. Frankenstein, there are medically justifiable reasons for Will using apes as guinea pigs.
Will has the lofty goal of looking for a cure for Alzheimer's. One reason why Will is so determined to find such a cure is that his own father, Charles Rodman (John Lithgow), is afflicted with Alzheimer's. Charles lives with Will, and so he sees the memory-robbing aspects of this disease on a daily basis.
If Will is well-intentioned, the corporate executive running Gen-Sys is so obsessed with the profit potential of an anti-Alzheimer's treatment that he is not averse to monkeying around with the scientific safeguards that generally make the drug development process so agonizingly slow.
Melodramatic lab incidents prompt Will to smuggle an infant chimpanzee out of the tightly guarded Gen-Sys complex. Raised in Will's house, this genetically altered chimp named Caesar shows signs of remarkable intelligence; moreover, Will injects the same gene-infused energy drink into Charles, whose Alzheimer's symptoms immediately disappear.
Treating Caesar like a member of the family raises a few human eyebrows in Will's suburban neighborhood, but this researcher is able to keep the full extent of his research a secret. The best scenes in the movie are gentle domestic moments in which we see how naturally Caesar and Will co-exist.
Somewhat marring this stretch of the movie, however, is the scene in which Will's zoo veterinarian girlfriend, Caroline (Freida Pinto), learns that Caesar has been genetically manipulated. This bombshell revelation scene occurs several years after she has joined the household. It's hard to believe that Caroline wouldn't have wondered years earlier why Caesar acclimated so completely to human society. In any event, Caroline is a sketchily developed character in a movie that keeps its focus on Will and Caesar.
When Caesar grows up, the peaceful household will face some challenges. You sit waiting for these radical complications to explode, of course, because otherwise there would not be a movie. Playing with Mother Nature always leads to bad consequences in such sci-fi movies.
True to his name, Caesar is destined to lead a primate army. Poor San Francisco is in for an invasion of hairy tourists. The well-orchestrated scenes of rampaging chimps include a compelling scene in which they rush through the tops of the trees that are gracefully arched over a quiet suburban street. A war is beginning, and it's likely to require a few sequels to this prequel. Grade: B
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes" (PG-13) is now playing at area theaters.