A digitally-animated Andy Serkis with James Franco in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes.”
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” an amusingly cheerful film about the end of humanity that’s PETA and critic approved — no animals were harmed in its making, and neither was James Franco’s career — is precisely the kind of summer diversion that the studios have such a hard time making now. It’s good, canny-dumb fun. Employing bleeding-edge technologies in the service of old-fashioned entertainment, it insists on the emotional truth of its absurd story, its tongue in cheek (and in check), while offering self-aware asides, like the ritual bow to Charlton Heston, the lockjaw hero of the original 1968 “Planet of the Apes.”
At once an origin story for that period-appropriate freakout and a solid kick in the franchise pants, the new “Apes” movie takes place in a present that, with a few exceptions (a space mission included), looks plausibly like our own. Mr. Franco — serious, focused, sympathetic — plays Will Rodman, a scientist and romantic idealist who is one hubristic mistake away from becoming a latter-day Dr. Frankenstein. Like the shiny headquarters at Gen-Sys, the pharmaceutical giant for which he works, Will makes science look good, as he bustles about in his white lab coat. Rarely have big-pharma-like doings looked so harmless, at least if you don’t count the animals doped up on the would-be wonder drug that Will hopes will cure Alzheimer’s.
It isn’t long before that temple of scientific rationalism goes kablooey. One afternoon a prized chimpanzee, nicknamed Bright Eyes for the eerie green tint of her peepers, throws a fit, running amok through the Gen-Sys labs, atrium and even the meeting room where Will is pitching his cure to his boss (David Oyelowo) and prospective investors. Oops! Cut down by a bullet, Bright Eyes both ends Will’s immediate dreams and offers him something like a new beginning in the form of her baby, a bundle of beastly joy. Out goes the man of science, as the accidental daddy takes the infant home, where he’s baptized Caesar by Will’s own father, Charles (John Lithgow), and grows quickly, fast becoming a lively, curious, very smart young thing.
After this brisk preamble, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” settles into a playful stretch. Caesar cozies into his human home for an inverse version of the first “Apes” movie (with shades of “Curious George”), if mostly without incident, despite foreboding static with a neighbor (David Hewlett). Time passes, and Caesar grows stronger and smarter as Will finds a love (Freida Pinto) and Charles, suffering from Alzheimer’s, worsens. In desperation Will plays God and turns Charles into his next experiment, becoming both the son and the father to his own lab rats. More time passes, and a story about a modern blended family shifts into a jittery cautionary tale about man’s domination of nature and turns “Apes” into a weird twin of the recent documentary “Project Nim,” about a chimp who was used and abused in the 1970s in the name of science.
It’s likely that the writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver and the director Rupert Wyatt were as familiar with Nim — who was mistakenly thought to understand human language and was later tragically abandoned by his handlers — as they were with the “Apes” franchise. (The filmmakers nod to the earlier movies repeatedly, as with a lost space team and a toy Statue of Liberty.) Then again, the exploitation of animals in the name of human progress is a horror-fiction staple, and in the 1960s and ’70s screens overflowed with marauding rats, bunnies, sharks and yet more apes as the magical animals of the Walt Disney generation gave way to fanged and furry avengers of the hippie nation. “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” may be primarily a calculated business decision, but it’s also a smiley wag (or flick) of the environmental finger.
Not to overplay the ethical issues — cuz the movie sure doesn’t. Engineered to entertain, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” may be awkwardly named, but almost everything else about it is generally easygoing, including the inevitable climactic action and the human and digitally assisted performances. First among the computer creations is Caesar, who evolves from a ball of fluff into a rambunctious child, a sullen teenager and finally a young adult given nuance through performance-capture technology (which combines an actor’s moves with computer-generated imagery) and the efforts of Andy Serkis, the actor who brought Gollum to life in “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy. When Caesar scowls, as he increasingly does, you don’t see just digital wizardry at its most expressive; you also see a plausible, angry, thinking character.
Mr. Wyatt, a British filmmaker whose credits include the independent feature “The Escapist,” handles both the intimately scaled scenes and blockbuster-size action capably. Either he or Mr. Franco smartly decided that the actor’s performance should be delivered without knowing self-mockery, a strategy that helps keep the ridiculous story from collapsing into full-on camp. Even as the movie grows stranger, more outlandish, and science bleeds into science fiction, Mr. Franco maintains a straight face, selling his relationships with Charles and Caesar. Mr. Wyatt, meanwhile, toggles between the large-scale, special-effects-assisted action — there’s a nice moment when leaves fall like rain as the chimps take to the trees canopying a suburban street — and the cinema’s greatest special effect: the face, some digital.
If you wanted to indulge in some old-school 1970s-style paranoia, you could see an analogy between our world, in which digital characters are fast catching up to their human counterparts, and that of “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” which clears the stage for a coming ape revolution (and doubtless more movies). But that wouldn’t jibe with Mr. Wyatt’s genial, untroubled take on the apocalypse. Though it skews grim in a Dickensian primate facility where Caesar learns some hard truths under heavy hands — and where you could swear the fuzzy inmates chant a protest that sounds remarkably like “Attica! Attica!” — the film is largely, perversely upbeat. It’s the end of the world as we know it, and the animals feel fine.
“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” is rated PG-13 (Parents strongly cautioned). Ape and human violence.