“These people invest in results. Not dreams.”
How did the apes from Pierre Boulle‘s Planet of the Apes gain control of Earth? The 1968 film adaptation shows human/ape hybrids walking, talking, and living in civilizations—a great sci-fi conceit making us believe in a distant planet where evolution took a different turn than what happened here. But as anyone who saw that movie or Tim Burton‘s much-maligned remake knows, a twist arrives to show the existence of these creatures was something else all together. We discover we were watching a tale set in the distant future on our own planet at a time when apes ruled and humans were caged. It should therefore be no surprise that someone like Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver would decide to tell the beginning of their story. And thus Rise of the Planet of the Apes was born.
It’s pretty much exactly what you’d think too. A scientist named Will Rodman (James Franco) is experimenting on chimpanzees with formulas meant to regrow damaged brain cells so he may cure his father (John Lithgow‘s Charles) of Alzheimer’s. Things look positive, his boss Mr. Jacobs (David Oyelowo) calls the board in for a demonstration, and all hell inevitably breaks loose once star subject Bright Eyes turns violent. The project is shut down, chimp wrangler Franklin (Tyler Labine) is forced to dispose of the “contaminated” apes, and a young baby is discovered swaddled inside one of the cages. Coerced into hiding him for a few days so a sanctuary can be found, Will soon realizes the animal’s uncharted intelligence. It’s the proof he needs to finally inject his father and subsequently witness the miracle of Charles’ seemingly full recovery.
Caesar (Andy Serkis) is ultimately adopted into the Rodman family so Will may continue his research at home. Years go by, the chimp grows, and its actions prove more child-like than anything one might see in a zoo. Just like the real life stories of people harboring apes as pets that catalyzed Jaffa and Silver’s script before turning it into a Planet of the Apes prequel, Caesar’s size and strength become too much to control. His protective instincts for Charles, Will, and the latter’s new girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) volatilely mix with the public’s cautious fear, sparking a chain of events that land him in court-ordered captivity. As smart as he’s evolved, however, the knowledge humanity-at-large may never accept him coupled with experiencing firsthand how they treat his own kind behind bars forces him to take a stand.
Everything plays like an origin story should from the creation of a new breed of chimp straight to an ending that begs for a sequel. We’re given the hubris of man as good intentions turn to greed; a kind-hearted soul darkening into one filled with anger and frustration towards unjust prejudice; and the abject fear mankind perpetually uses to fuel its hatred for anyone or anything it does not understand. You cannot make an animal your intellectual equal without understanding the ramifications of its potential confrontation with the heinous acts some gleefully inflict upon its brethren. Caesar may be able to trust Will and believe himself to be the man’s son in their hermetically sealed utopia, but his yearning for this human “home”—the only home he’s ever known—can’t survive the acknowledgement of his true species and place.
Director Rupert Wyatt and his Oscar-nominated special effects team wonderfully bring Caesar and his ape comrades to life through advanced motion-capture technology that puts the nuance of Serkis’ and the others’ performances onscreen. A healthy portion of the film is dialogue-free as a result, utilizing emotive eyes and facial expressions to depict communication when sign language no longer works. Since only the amiable orangutan Maurice (Karin Konoval)—once in the circus—can actually “converse” with Caesar, the rest use grunts and physical posturing to make their intentions known. We watch as attempts at dominance succeed and fail while their vitriol against villainous captor Dodge (Tom Felton) rises. Caesar ultimately ascends to the top thanks to his problem solving skills, enlisting friends and enemies (Terry Notary‘s Rocket) to assist an escape plot made necessary after comprehending Gen-Sys Labs restarted its research.
They are the stars of the show so don’t be too heartbroken when realizing their human counterparts are less than up to the task. Whether the role is two-dimensional (Pinto’s Caroline), too over-the-top sentimentally (Lithgow’s Charles), or little more than a pawn used to advance smaller plot points while also providing comic relief (Will’s neighbor Hunsiker played by David Hewlett), the actors not replaced with CGI fur prove the most cartoonish of the bunch. Even Franco at its center finds himself too interested in his usual glassy-eyed, furrowed brow of sad indignation to really give a layered performance. It doesn’t help that his character is written to simply give in to everything presented to him with more tantrum than fight, but it isn’t a great sign when the “fake” ape steals the spotlight every single time.
The antagonists appear more believable in the end because you expect their evil, slimy tendencies to skew closer to farce. Brian Cox‘s sanctuary owner John is the most subdued; his son played by Felton the most caricatured; and Oyelowo the requisite corporate bottom-liner pushing things into amorality in a way that cannot avoid revolution. But as the title states, this is just Caesar and his apes’ rise. Don’t expect any huge battles besides the well-orchestrated Golden Gate bridge scuffle fought more in self-defense than rebellion. Awesome special effects aside, the film ultimately proves to be more quiet drama than anything with any real spark of action or adventure and the sci-fi aspects take a backseat to more social and anthropological pursuits—through a primate lens. It’s a great start, but what comes next is what we really want.