Aficionados will note that the plot echoes elements of ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ (1972), the fourth movie in an already etiolated series. There are also some in-jokes, with the 1968 original even glimpsed on a TV screen at one point. Crucially, though, the events are seen from the point of view of the chimpanzee Caesar, a CGI creature infused with an uncanny nascent humanity by performance-capture master Andy Serkis. The nature of the human/ ape conflict has changed, too, with the racial discrimination so topical in the civil rights era of the late ’60s supplanted by contemporary fears about scientists who play God by experimenting on ‘inferior’ species.
The chimp-based research into brain tissue regeneration conducted by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) for pharmaceutical company GenSys does have a human element; his once musically talented father, Charles (John Lithgow), now has Alzheimer’s. Even so, Rodman concedes that the anarchic aggression displayed by the lab chimps dosed with experimental drug ALZ-112 means that they must be destroyed.
However, when the unborn child of chimp Bright Eyes survives this cull, Will takes him home, names him Caeser, and continues his discredited research in secret. As Will’s father regains his faculties, Caeser grows from an inquisitive infant into a strong, super-intelligent adult chimp, one with ‘human’ emotions but also a dangerous aggressive streak.
On the insistence of beautiful primatologist Caroline (Freida Pinto), Will exiles Caesar to the San Bruno Primate Sanctuary, where neglect by its owner, Landon (Brian Cox), and the cruelties meted out by his son, Dodge (Tom Felton), provoke the chimp into fomenting an ape rebellion. Once free, the weapon-wielding apes invade the streets of San Francisco, terrorising and killing its human inhabitants.
Despite a quantum leap from his low-budget British prison movie ‘The Escapist’ to this $90 million blockbuster, director Rupert Wyatt stages the climactic battle on the city’s Golden Gate Bridge – a stunning set-piece featuring hundreds of life-like apes – with remarkable assurance.
He also strives to match the philosophical seriousness of the first ‘Apes’ film, but his handling of the underdeveloped characters is never as convincing as the visual effects work. Also, particularly in the ferocious battle scenes, there is far too much special pleading on behalf of the selectively violent apes.