August 10, 2011

James Franco plays a San Francisco geneticist searching for a cure for Alzheimer’s disease by testing an IQ-boosting drug on laboratory chimps. (It also pleiotropically lightens their eyes, a concept which sounds borrowed from evolutionary theorist Gregory Cochran.)

Franco’s retrovirus turns out to be the first effective No Chimp Left Behind program. He raises Caesar, a genetically engineered genius, at home. But when the little scamp grows into a hulking brute, a court order dispatches him to a San Bruno shelter. Like Bull Connor in Birmingham, a guard (played by Tom Felton, who played the nasty Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter series) turns a fire hose on Caesar. In the primate prison’s yard, the poor nerdy chimp is terrified by an inmate gang, perhaps modeled upon San Quentin’s Black Guerilla Family.

Rise turns into a prison-escape movie almost as good as Toy Story 3. We watch the radicalized Caesar make himself, through sheer smarts, the con boss who takes over the Black Gorilla Family and kills the bull.

Admittedly, Rise’s human actors are lame: James Franco, often acclaimed for his busy schedule, looks tired. Freida Pinto (the pretty girl from Slumdog Millionaire) won’t make you forget that her name sounds like a character from Idiocracy.

But the digital effects are good enough (although at $93 million, this is only a mid-budget movie). Moreover, Andy Serkis, who acted out Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is once again superb in a motion-capture role as Caesar.

Best of all, Jaffa and Silver do a remarkable job by getting about 80 percent of their monkey movie to make sense. For example, the climactic battle is set on the Golden Gate Bridge, the West Coast equivalent of the original movie’s Statue of Liberty. Yet that setting makes tactical as well as symbolic sense. How can apes elude police riflemen in a helicopter? Well, where else in America is more likely to be adventitiously shrouded in fog?

Make sure to stick around during the credits when a brilliantly concise sequence tracking a new “Patient Zero” reveals that this prequel has been an AIDS metaphor all along.



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