By the time they got to the line, “Take your stinking paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!” I couldn’t help thinking, “Take your stinking paws off the franchise, Hollywood!” Do we really need another apes movie?
We do have one, though, and it’s good. We can skip over the way it departs from the explanation in the original films that humans (spoiler alert!) wipe ourselves out with nuclear war. The explanation in this prequel is better, more chilling, more visceral. James Franco plays Will, a dedicated pharmaceutical company medical researcher desperate to find a treatment for the Alzheimer’s that is stealing his father (John Lithgow) from him. The tests on a chimp are promising, but when a demonstration before the company’s board goes horribly wrong, the program is shut down and the chimps are killed. It turns out the test chimp was pregnant and gave birth to a baby before she was destroyed. Will brings the baby home to his father. They name him Caesar.
He meets or exceeds human development for the first few years. The changes caused in his mother by the experimental drug were passed on to him. But as happened in the real-life story of the chimp raised in a human home portrayed in the documentary, “Project Nim,” when he becomes strong and the hormones of puberty kick in, he can no longer live with Will. He is taken to a facility where the animals are abused by the staff (including Tom Felton, “Harry Potter’s” Draco Malfoy).
Will tries desperately to get Caesar back, as he works on an even more powerful drug to improve memory and cognitive ability. But the drug has some devastating consequences as well, and the movie’s niftiest twist is the way the two elements of elevating the apes and bringing down the humans are tied together.
After more than two months of superheroes and giant robots, it is nice to have a science fiction/fantasy film that thinks it’s a drama. Light on bombast and unexpectedly tender-spirited, the story is grounded in Will’s wanting to hold on to his father, a passion born of love and devotion that recklessly spills over into hubris. Greed, ignorance, and cruelty of others ignites the conflict. We see how increasing intellectual development affects strategy and decision-making, including deciding when it is time to break the rules. And we are reminded of how ruthless the process of the survival instinct in evolution can be, especially when humans are no longer the fittest.
There are some nice touches for fans of the series. A chimp plays with a Statue of Liberty and Charlton Heston, star of the original movie, appears on a television. We see the origin of the insignia that becomes meaningful to the ape-run society. But the deeper connection is to more, well, primal themes of freedom and justice. I kept thinking of the storming of the Bastille.
Andy Serkis, who did the motion capture body movements for Golum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies, provides the acting inside the CGI. Serkis gives a performance that brings Caesar’s expressive face and eyes to life. Even the whiz kids at WETA special effects still haven’t licked the gravity problem, though. The computer animated apes never quite feel as weighty as they should. But there are some stunning images as they swing through the trees and crash through windows. And when Caesar stands erect and looks Will directly in the eyes we may find ourselves wondering whose side we are on.