Silly humans. We're so arrogant. We see a cute, cuddly baby chimp, assign all kinds of familiar characteristics to it and raise it with the loving playfulness we'd give our own children, only to find that the creature's unpredictable and ferocious animal nature wins out in the end.
If the documentary "Project Nim" didn't serve as enough of a warning for us earlier this summer, now we have the blockbuster "Rise of the Planet of the Apes," which is sort of a prequel and sort of a sequel and sort of a reboot. Mainly, it's a spectacle. Except for a couple of cute nods to the 1968 Charlton Heston original, "Rise" pretty much functions as its own stand-alone entity.
Sure, it might be trying to teach us a lesson about hubris, provide some insight into the darker elements of human nature we'd rather not acknowledge. But mostly it's about angry, "roided-up chimps clambering across cars on the Golden Gate Bridge, giving a hairy smackdown to the outmatched California Highway Patrol officers who are foolish enough to stand in their way. The second you see cops arriving on horseback in a futile attempt at keeping the peace, you just know that one of these primates is going to end up climbing into the saddle and unleashing hell, most likely in slow motion.
This is not a complaint, mind you. This seventh film in the "Planet of the Apes" series rises to such ridiculous heights, it's impossible not to laugh out loud - in a good way, in appreciation. There's big, event-movie fun to be had here, amped up by some impressive special effects and typically immersive performance-capture work by Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum from the "Lord of the Rings" films.
But the idea that director Rupert Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver truly had anything serious in mind seems rather disingenuous. There's a thin layer of philosophical substance draped over a muscular action picture. The third act makes that clear.
At first, though, James Franco is toiling away stoically as Will Rodman, a scientist at a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company who is doing genetic research in hopes of finding a cure for Alzheimer's disease. His quest is personal: His once-brilliant father (John Lithgow in the film's few subtle scenes) suffers from the affliction.
When trouble with one of the test chimps necessitates putting all of them down, Will sneaks home a baby that's secretly just been born. (Seriously? Nobody noticed a newborn chimp?) He's got some of the new drug in him, which makes him a quick learner; since he's clearly bound for great things, he's given the name Caesar.
As in "Project Nim" - and they would make a no-brainer of a double feature - Caesar grows big and strong, wears clothes, learns sign language and becomes part of the family. At the same time, Will has been testing out the new drug on his dad, who is also showing signs of improvement. Over the years, Will has fallen in love with the gorgeous veterinarian who treated Caesar as a baby (Freida Pinto, who's called on to look pretty and not much else). Everything's humming along nicely.
But, of course, since this is a CHIMP we're talking about, things get out of hand and Caesar must be sent away. Thankfully, there's a primate shelter nearby in San Bruno (what are the odds?). Brian Cox runs the place with sinister facial hair, and with Tom Felton - Draco Malfoy from the "Harry Potter" movies - playing his son, you know these can't be warmhearted guys. Wyatt builds tension in these scenes by playing them as if they were the central part of a prison drama, and watching Caesar manipulate his fellow chimps to wrest control is a hoot.
Serkis is so intense and committed to the role, you can't help but feel some empathy for Caesar, for his frustration and confusion. The effects are especially crisp when "Apes" focuses just on him, or on his seamless interaction with one or two humans or a couple of other chimps. It's the big set pieces that form the film's climax - as dozens of chimps scamper over hills and through city streets, into the zoo to free their brethren and eventually across that famous bridge - that things start to look distractingly fake and jerky.
But hey, at least they aren't flinging themselves at us in 3-D. Then things would get really hairy.
"Rise of the Planet of the Apes," a 20th Century Fox release, is rated PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence. Running time: 105 minutes. Two and a half stars out of four.