The story kicks off in the present. James Franco is a scientist who is trying to find a cure for Alzheimer’s because his father (played very well by John Lithgow) is suffering from it. He is experimenting on chimpanzees and finds a promising formula. Through a series of misfortunes his work is rejected and he ends up taking a baby chimp home with him to protect it from being euthanized. It turns out the baby chimp genetically inherited increased intelligence from its mother, who had been experimented on. It may also have had some other mutations since it is physically different from other chimps in a couple more ways (or it’s just bad writing.)
Franco’s character raises the chimp and continues to monitor his progress. The chimp, named Caeser (just like in Conquest of the POTA), continues to show high intelligence as he matures. He learns sign language and he and Franco’s character communicate that way. At one point Caeser is injured and he is taken to an expert on chimps. This expert is played by the gorgeous Freida Pinto (Slumdog Millionaire.) She and Franco’s character start a relationship.
The movie jumps forward five years. One day Caeser defends Lithgow’s character from an attack by a neighbor. Caeser is too violent with the neighbor, though, and ends up getting taken away. The ape enclosure he is taken to is run by a father (Brian Cox – X-Men 2) and son (Tom Fenton – Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies.) This is traumatic for Caeser and this event, plus what happens in the enclosure, drives the rest of the movie.
Do not be fooled by the trailer. All of the action scenes they show don’t happen until the last quarter of the movie. Up until that point the movie first focuses on Franco’s character and his relationship both with his father and Caeser, then it focuses on Caeser’s development into who he is going to become. Unfortunately, the trailer gives away too much. It shows almost the last scene in the entire movie.
You don’t have to worry about some tacked on “twist” ending like the 2001 movie had. This movie does not attempt to duplicate the shock at the end of the original POTA movie. When you watch this movie, stick around after the credits start, though. There is an additional scene that comes up after about 30 seconds. I had actually thought they had forgotten a plot line that was in the movie, but this scene addressed it.
For fans of the original movies you will see quite a few references. Many of the characters are named after characters in the original movies, or the actors who played them. Tom Fenton gets both of the classic “It’s a madhouse! A madhouse!” and “Take your paws off me you damn dirty ape!” lines. There’s also a hose used on Caeser while he is in a cage. You see a TV report of the launch of a mission to Mars, and later in the movie you see a newspaper headline that says the mission has been lost. This is a reference to how Charlton Heston’s character ended up in the future in the original POTA movie (although he wasn’t on a Mars mission.) At one point we see a clip of Charlton Heston in The Agony and the Ecstasy playing on a TV. I did not see it, but posters online have said that they noticed a partially completed model of the Statue of Liberty that Caeser was doing while he was growing up.
What problems did I have with the movie? Well, there are two times where you really have to suspend your disbelief. The first is when scientists don’t realize that their primary research chimp has been pregnant and has given birth. The second is when a lab person is potentially exposed to a virus and no one is concerned about it, not even after he has called in sick two days in a row. Caeser does something at the end of the film that is intended to be moving, but would have been physically impossible. I wrote it off to artistic license. When Caeser is in the ape enclosure they hit us over the head that it is a metaphor for prison. I wish they had been a little more subtle with it. None of these things are big enough for me to lower the movie’s rating.
Others have complained that Pinto’s character is not developed enough, nor do they show much romance between her character and Franco’s. I don’t share these complaints because that’s not what the movie is about. If you are going to see the movie to watch a big romance between Franco and Pinto – oh and it has some apes in it, too – then you will be very disappointed. The movie basically skips over the years where the two of them would have gotten closer. In one of the jumps forward that the movie makes they go from meeting to living together. Pinto’s character just isn’t central to the story. Franco isn’t even shown as much in the second half of the movie because Caeser is actually the main character.
You could just as easily say that they did not develop Tom Fenton’s character. It would be for the same reason – he’s not central to the story. One note - Fenton needs to worry about getting typecast as a villain, but he does do a good job playing someone you love to hate.
The cgi is well done, except for crowd scenes where they show many apes running. The effects for Caeser are exceptional. I forgot I was watching a computer generated image. Andy Serkis played Caeser via motion capture. This is the same thing he did to play Gollum in the Lord of the Rings movies and King Kong in the 2005 movie.
Overall, this movie is highly recommended. It will probably have more depth than you expect, and it does have some action for those people looking for that.
Chip’s Rating: 4 out of 5 stars