Will Rodman (James Franco) is a scientist for a pharmaceutical company who is trying to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s, and is testing different drugs on chimpanzees in order to do it. Will has some obvious motivation to find the cure, since his father, Charles (John Lithgow), suffers from the disease, and he thinks he has found the right drug when one female chimp, nicknamed Bright Eyes, shows increased brain function. But when the time comes to show her off to Will’s boss (David Oyelowo) and the board of directors, Bright Eyes goes on a rampage through the building and is killed, and work on the drug is scuttled.
After Bright Eyes is killed, Will and his chimp handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine), discover that she had just given birth, and was likely being protective, not aggressive. Will takes the baby chimp, which he names Caesar, home with him, and he discovers that the effects of the drug were passed down to Caesar from his mother.
Caesar shows remarkable intelligence, with advanced problem-solving abilities and sign-language skills. At first, he, Will and Charles make up a very cute unconventional family, but as he gets older Caesar gets smarter as well and begins to resent his captivity.
Will takes Caesar out to play among the redwood trees in a national park, but he is kept on a leash. He realizes that he isn’t considered an equal to the humans, but he doesn’t know where he fits in.
Eventually, Caesar attacks a neighbor who gets into a confrontation with a confused Charles. He is then taken to an ape sanctuary run by John (Brian Cox). John’s son, Dodge (Tom Felton) treats the apes with cruelty, encouraging them to fight each other and delighting in zapping them with a cattle prod. At the sanctuary, Caesar discovers that he doesn’t really belong around other apes, either.
There is no question that this film absolutely belongs to Caesar, and it couldn’t have been such a success without the amazing collaboration between WETA, the special effects company that animated Caesar, and Andy Serkis, the actor upon whose performance the CGI was based. Serkis, who also provided the basis for Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s remake, does a splendid job here. Caesar goes through an incredible transformation during the film, from wide-eyed child to resentful teen, from scared and alone to a righteously angry freedom fighter. Yet, so much of Caesar’s character is revealed through subtle facial expressions or movements of his eyes, and we are never left guessing what Caesar is thinking.
The film was directed by British filmmaker Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist), who has a terrific eye for composition and a way with visual effects in scenes both large and small. One great scene shows the passage of time as Caesar swings through the redwoods. Another shows a peaceful, tree-lined suburban street in which green leaves rain down on people as apes swing through the treetops.
Despite the fact that he fills the film with bravura visuals, Wyatt’s greatest achievement as director may be in how normal he makes the film seem. There are many extended scenes in which all the characters are CGI, based on motion-capture performances, and Wyatt shoots them as performance scenes, not trying to show off the special effects. Wyatt has a knack for creating these wordless scenes cleanly and effortlessly. The long sequence in which Caesar figures out how to win over his fellow apes and escape from the sanctuary is masterful in its visual storytelling.
Outside of the gigantic amount of money that must have been spent on special effects, this really doesn’t feel like a summer blockbuster. There isn’t any action until at least three quarters of the way through the movie, and most of the film is spent on relatively quiet scenes in which we watch Caesar’s development.
Screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver are going for something a little subtler than the traditional action extravaganza. They give us a finely crafted main character, and almost make us root for Caesar and his cause. They get us emotionally involved, but don’t offer easy answers to the questions they raise.
The movie’s one real flaw is its weak human characters. Sometimes their failure seems like the filmmakers’ sly acknowledgment that this is really the apes’ story, and the humans are ancillary, even as they are losing the planet. Sometimes it just feels like lazy writing.
Franco’s character, for example, has very little to him outside of his overriding personal need to see the drug succeed, and Freida Pinto’s character is even thinner. She plays Caroline, Will’s girlfriend, and she seems to be around only to interject every once in a while that there are some things in the world that aren’t meant to be tampered with, and bad things can happen to those who try. We see the initial meeting between her character and Franco’s, and then the film jumps a few years into the future, where evidently they have been together the entire time. We never get to see why they liked each other in the first place, let alone why they stayed together for so long.
If the movie doesn’t overly develop most of its human characters, at least it usually doesn’t demonize them, either. With the obvious exception of Felton’s character, the humans in the movie aren’t overtly cruel. The policemen toward the end of the film, for example, are acting exactly how you would expect people to react to a mass ape uprising. Even Oyelowo’s money-grubbing pharmaceutical executive never becomes over-thetop evil.
This in itself is kind of horrifying. One would hope that it would be some sort of grand mistake that would cost us the planet, some outsized tragic flaw that would show exactly why we didn’t deserve the dominion we’ve enjoyed for so long, but the suggestion that a group of people just trying to do the right thing, and mostly succeeding, still manage to get wiped out, is rather disturbing. Still, if the humans on display here are any indication, then maybe we lose the planet through sheer blandness.
In going from Tim Burton’s lunkheaded remake to this, it seems like someone gave the series a smart drug. The rare prequel that feels like a complete, satisfying entity unto itself, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an emotionally involving science fiction story that tells an absurd story but proves to be as unexpectedly intelligent as its main character.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.