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14 August 2011

Et Tu, Caesar?

Another week, another ape-related movie. Of course, the release dates of Rise of the Planet of the Apes (ROTPOTA) and Project Nim were nicely coordinated in the UK, and it's not difficult to see the similarities--arrogant man takes baby chimp, raises him as human and is then suitably shocked when cute baby chimp becomes seriously aggressive adult chimp--but only ROTPOTA is fictional. Some spoilers may follow, although let's face it: it is over 40 years since the original Planet of the Apes.

The arrogant human in ROTPOTA is Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist working on a promising new Alzheimer's drug, ALZ112, at a pharmaceutical company in San Francisco. His father (John Lithgow) has Alzheimer's and this clouds Will's judgement enough for him to think that n=1 is good science. Based on the fact that one chimp (named Bright Eyes because of the way the ALZ112 made her eyes turn a bright, clear green) has shown a remarkable recovery after being treated with the drug, Will persuades his boss Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo) to go ahead with the flashy press conference and start pitching to investors. Unfortunately, part way through the pitch, Bright Eyes goes wild, breaking free of her cage and smashing through the glass into the meeting room, baring her teeth at all and sundry and knocking down anyone who tries to stop her. It later emerges that her aggression was probably due to the fact that she thought her newborn baby was being threatened, rather than because of ALZ112, but it's too late--the trials are halted and all the apes are put down.

One of the lab technicians finds Bright Eyes' baby and persuades Will to take him home for a few days until a space at a primate reserve opens up. A few days later and Will has fallen in love and ends up keeping the chimp, whom he names Caesar. It turns out that effects ALZ112 had on Bright Eyes have been passed on to Caesar (it's unclear whether this is through the bloodstream or because of epigenetic changes; I'm trying to avoid passing judgement on the science in this movie) and he becomes super intelligent. For eight years or so, he and Will have a great time, signing to each other (Caesar also seems to understand when Will talks), visiting Muir Woods and chatting up cute vets like Caroline (Freida Pinto).

My photo of the Golden Gate Bridge in the mist

Meanwhile, based on the progress Will has observed in Caesar, he starts treating his dad with ALZ112 and wow, Pops makes a startling recovery. But wait, because this really isn't a good movie week for big pharma: Will's father's immune system starts to fight back against the "ALZ112 virus and Will decides they need to use a stronger form of the drug. Jacobs is impressed (although not wild about yet another n=1 trial) and agrees to start trials of a stronger form of the drug, ALZ113, on chimps. Even though one of the lab technicians breathes in some of the gas containing the ALZ113 and gets very sick very quickly.

Caesar, now eight or so, is getting too big to keep in the house and after he bites the finger off an aggressive neighbour who was attacking Will's dad, Caesar is taken away to a primate centre. Will and Caroline only see a large enclosure with lots of toys and rocks and not the cage into which Caesar is later shut. Initially bullied by the other ape inmates, the charismatic Caesar gets them on side by bribing them with cookies and then later with his presumably rousing sign-language speeches. And because this is a film and not reality, he "learns" to speak (even though chimps don't have the right vocal anatomy to speak). He can say, "no" and "war" and, later, "Caesar is home." And so it is here that the eponymous rise of the planet of the apes begins.

Franco and the other human leads were fine but as with Project Nim, this movie aroused almost no sympathy in me for the humans and plenty for the apes, particularly Caesar, who goes on to shun, although not kill, Will (in fact, he prefers to leave the killing to the other apes), in favour of his new ape buddies, whom he leads into battle against the people of San Francisco. SF was a good city to choose given that the Golden Gate Bridge, on which the grand finale takes place, is a dramatic setting and is also often shrouded in mist, giving the apes a crucial advantage. ROTPOTA had a compelling storyline, nice character development (of the apes, at least), and it managed to be fun, while still having some more moving scenes. I just don't think I can watch any more films with mistreated animals for the time being, even if the animals in question are CGI!

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