A reboot, remake, and prequel all rolled up one, Rise of the Planet of the Apes arrives this weekend just in time to counteract end-of-summer malaise in and out of movie theaters.
Directed by Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) with visual effects, including the title characters (a combination of mo-cap and digital animation), from WETA digital, Rise of the Planet of the Apes succeeds in creating a richly imagined world and a compelling character in Caesar (Andy Serkis), a genetically enhanced, super-smart simian and future leader of the ape rebellion of the title that contributes to the subversion of the primate-human hierarchy.
Initially, Rise of the Planet of the Apes centers on Will Rodman (James Franco), a genetics researcher specializing in Alzheimer’s for a San Francisco-based pharmaceutical company, Gen-Sys. Rodman’s father, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from Alzheimer’s, giving Will personal reasons for focusing on Alzheimer’s as well as a sense of urgency. Rodman’s latest drug, meant to repair damaged brain tissue, fails to obtain approval for human testing after a primate test subject escapes, but he pushes forward, secretly treating his father with the new drug.
Rodman also adopts the product of the failed trial: a genetically enhanced chimp his father names Caesar. They raise Caesar as a member of the family, teaching him sign language to communicate (Caesar can’t speak).
Will’s drug, passed from Caesar’s test subject mother, enhances his intelligence to near-genius levels, but Caesar’s status, neither human nor primate, proves increasingly problematic, ultimately resulting in Caesar’s capture and forcible detention in a primate sanctuary that’s more prison than sanctuary. The sanctuary introduces Caesar to the hard lessons of primate society (e.g., social status), Caesar, as both victim and witness, learns firsthand of the injustices, privations, and mistreatment suffered by his fellow primates. This leads to the inevitable mass break-out and given the San Francisco setting, the film’s climactic battle against San Francisco’s finest (no bets on who wins and who loses) on San Francisco’s best known landmark, the Golden Gate Bridge.
Wyatt and his credited screenwriters, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, cover familiar ground, exploring, however briefly and superficially, genetic experimentation, animal testing, and animal treatment in captivity, while painting a generic bulls eye on Big Pharma, personified by Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), Will’s profit-driven, hubristic Gen-Sys boss, as the film’s central antagonist.
Dodge Landon (Tom Felton), a cruel, contemptuous primate handler at the sanctuary, represents the film’s other villain, albeit a one-dimensional character. The same, however, can be said about Jacobs and, to a lesser extent, Will, who fades into the background in the second half, and Will’s veterinarian girlfriend, Caroline Aranha (Freida Pinto).
Fans of the original five-film series will spot more than a few callbacks—some verbal, some visual. More importantly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes adequately answers how, given the vast disparity simians become the dominant species. It’s superficially logical, setting up sequels that can go in a number of different directions with little, if any story connection, to the original series.
Not surprisingly, Rise of the Planet of the Apes belongs to Caesar and his character arc from almost human to primate leader. Caesar emerges as a sympathetic, tragic figure, neither fully human nor fully primate. He’s made all the more sympathetic and tragic through the combination of Andy Serkis’ nuance-heavy, award-worthy mo-cap performance and WETA Digital’s visual effects experts.
While some of the larger CG-dependent scenes look slightly unfinished or rushed, especially the aforementioned Golden Gate Bridge scene, WETA Digital devoted obvious care and attention to making Caesar fully expressive, noticeably better than Serkis’ turns as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Ring trilogy or the title character in Jackson’s 2005 King Kong remake.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars.