One of the stand out films of this year's Sydney Film Festival was the documentary Project Nim*, which detailed the promising yet doomed research into the intelligence of chimpanzees via means of teaching them sign language. The project was doomed not so much for the lack of intelligence on the part of the subject - Nim Chimpsky was more than up for the task - but for the lack of emotional intelligence those humans involved displayed towards their subject: ignoring, indulging and exploiting Nim's animal status as it suited them.
The first hour of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, director Rupert Wyatt's prequel to the classic sci-fi film of 1968, parallels Project Nim perfectly. The adoption, education, ignorance of inherent nature and the eventual abandonment of the chimp, named Caesar by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) and his father, Charles (John Lithgow), when that nature outs, plays out much like the life of Nim Chimpsky.
Unfortunately for Nim, he wasn't exposed to the drug which Will has developed to fight his father's Alzheimer's, a drug that not only repairs damaged brain cells but increases the intelligence of the exposed test primates. And it's when the 8-year-old Caesar, son of the original test subject and inheritor of the super-smarts, is detained in an animal shelter following an attack on a neighbour, that this higher intelligence comes into its own. Evolution becomes revolution, as the film's poster states.
That evolution (thanks in part to exposure to Will's drug in gas form), which sees Caesar's new found army of chimps, gorillas and orangutan taking to the streets of San Francisco, may happen a little too quickly but, hey, it's only a two hour movie. There is also the sub plot involving a disease in humans developed as a result of exposure to said gas, so as the apes rise, man's descent begins. Oh, science, when will you learn?
There are nods to the 1968 original Planet of the Apes (and the sequels, I'm guessing; I haven't seen any of those) including a mistaken recitation of Charlton Heston's classic line: "Get your stinking paws off me you damn dirty ape!" Mistaken as it suggests a self awareness the rest of the film doesn't possess nor need, and because that line requires a far better actor than ex-Draco Malfoy, Tom Felton, the cruel son of the animal shelter owner (Brian Cox) who gets his comeuppance, to make it work.
What does work, and amazingly so, are the CGI effects used to render Caesar and his fellow primates; I'm still not sure if the orangutan was digital or real? Andy Serkis plays the role of Caesar and much like the actor did with Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and as the titular King Kong in Peter Jackson's 2005 remake, he brings the chimp to life, investing him with humanity and heart. It may still be too soon to create an Oscars category specifically for this type of performance, but Serkis deserves all sorts of praise for what he achieves, in absentia as it were.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes may fall away in its second half when said revolution unfolds, but I'm prepared to forgive a Hollywood summer blockbuster that has more on its mind than adrenaline, and even more so when it's not in 3D (Thank you for that small mercy, 20th Century Fox).
I'm also prepared to believe screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's decision to set this story of a monkey-related disease, passed on to humans and further transmitted through blood, in the gay capital of the world is merely coincidental and not a subtle commentary on AIDS (one which I can't decide is good or bad).
Instead I choose to believe that cruelty to animals and the hubris of science are the more pertinent political statements being made in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, another reason why the film, like its protagonist, can stand tall.
*Here is a link to my initial review of Project Nim which screened the 2010 Sydney Film Festival and opens in Australian cinemas September 29.