It’s 1971 and I’m sitting in the old Sack Cheri theater near the Prudential Tower, watching “Escape From the Planet of the Apes,’’ the third in the five-film series kicked off by 1968’s “Planet of the Apes.’’ It’s not a great movie, but it’s good enough, and, anyway, I don’t care. I’m 13! Talking apes from the future! Roddy McDowall and Kim Hunter in semi-convincing latex humanoid chimp makeup! Cheap early-’70s sci-fi apocalypse! Pass the Junior Mints.
We know how bad the “Apes’’ movies can get (1973’s “Battle for the Planet of the Apes’’ or Tim Burton’s ridiculous 2001 remake of the original, take your pick). So you may, like me, skulk into the new “Rise of the Planet of the Apes’’ expecting the worst. And you may, like me, be genuinely surprised by where this movie takes you. If you can get past some less-than-convincing CGI – a big if during the film’s early scenes – you may find yourself thoroughly emotionally invested in a drama about a downtrodden minority who unite behind a charismatic leader and rebel against their thoughtless overlords.
The apes, of course, are the downtrodden minority, and humans are the thoughtless overlords. It’s pretty amazing how quickly we can recalibrate our priorities and urge on our own destruction.
“Rise’’ essentially replaces the third and fourth “Apes’’ movies as an origin story of how those advanced simians came to be in the first place. And the answer this go-round is . . . gene therapy. Or a virus. Or both; I don’t know, pass the Junior Mints. Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is fast-tracking an Alzheimer’s cure to bring his ailing father (John Lithgow) back out of the fog, but when one of the chimps he has injected with his regenerative brain-cell virus goes ape, the experiment is shut down by his greedy-but-not-insane boss (David Oyelowo).
The chimp left behind a genetically superior infant, whom Will dubs Caesar and raises in secret. The initial scenes in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,’’ especially those involving baby Caesar, put your heart in your stomach: The computer-generated simians – no latex makeup this time – sit right on the line of bogusness. It’s hard to buy into a movie when your hero looks like a cut-rate video game.
Caesar grows up, though, and the CGI improves – if you never lose sight that you’re watching something visually closer to a cartoon than a live-action film, the unexpectedly compelling story makes up for it. As the chimp hides in suburbia and slowly comes to understand how bad his kind have it, “Rise’’ becomes part “Frankenstein,’’ part “Spartacus,’’ and part “Rebel Without a Cause but With an Extra Chromosome.’