The movie begins in Africa, where hunters attack a group of apes and catch them — not to kill, as far as we can see, but to take to America for research purposes. One such chimpanzee called Bright Eyes winds up in a drug trial run by scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). He is attempting to find a drug that can help the brain repair itself — particularly, in cases of Alzheimer’s. This quest has special meaning for him, as we learn when we meet his father, Charles (John Lithgow), a brilliant but quickly fading man. Bright Eyes scores high on cognitive ability tests and Will thinks at last he has found what will essentially be a “cure for Alzheimer’s.” On the day that he plans to show off the accomplished Bright Eyes to investors and FDA officials (or something, a room full of people who can be amazed and/or horrified as needed), Bright Eyes is suddenly not herself. She won’t leave her little cube and finds her inner wild animal when attempts are made to sedate her. Eventually crashing straight into the conference room, Bright Eyes is taken down by a security guard and with her dies Will’s hope for his drug’s approval.
In what seems like some shoddy scientific work, the pharmaceutical company’s head, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), tells chimp handler Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine, Sock from the much-too-short-lived Reaper) to dispose of all the remaining chimps because they’re contaminated. With rage? With professional failure? If it’s with the drug, then I’m not sure why they wouldn’t test and observe the other chimps to see if they developed Bright Eyes’ symptoms. Or do an autopsy on Bright Eyes. Or anything sciencey. But don’t worry, you don’t dwell too long on things because, as Robert soon realizes, Bright Eyes wasn’t turned aggressive by the drugs; she was turned protective by the birth of a baby chimp. Robert finds the baby chimp in her cubicle and, after having to euthanize all the other chimps (seriously? you don’t look in the crazy chimp’s cube first?) he refuses to look into those cute baby chimp eyes and insert the death needle. You do it or take him someplace safe, he tells Will. Will is also a sucker for those big baby chimp eyes, all trusting and primate-y, so he takes the chimp home “for a few days.”
Next thing you know, baby chimp is now three-year-old Caesar (Andy Serkis, all performance-captured and CGIed), living in a well-tricked-out play room in Will’s attic. Will soon realizes that Caesar received some of the intellect-increasing benefits of the drug as well but whereas Bright Eyes’ meds merely repaired damaged cells, Caesar’s dose has increased his abilities. He can understand language and sign in response, he is agile and can think through things and he can reason. As he gets older, he even starts to have complex thoughts about his place in the world, such as when Will takes him to a state park full of redwoods. Caesar is allowed to run up the trees off leash but then on their way back to the car, Will puts him back on the leash. Caesar sees a dog, also on the leash, and asks Will “am I a pet?” and then “What is Caesar?” Will doesn’t seem terribly troubled by this, but his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto), a veterinarian, is worried that Will is screwing around with dangerous forces.
Because of Caesar’s extraordinary abilities, Will starts sneaking samples of the drug home to give to his dad, who improves. His progress helps Will convince Steven to restart the drug’s trials. But even for the what’s-a-few-brain-cells-between-primates Will, Steven moves much too fast in his testing — which, of course, involves more chimps.
We get a remarkably well-developed story about the emotional life of the minimally verbal Caesar. He is a happy, curious child who loves his family. He grows to be boisterous, perhaps more boisterous than Will’s suburban neighborhood can handle. He is smart enough to understand when something is wrong with Charlie. We get a sense of Caesar’s longing and frustration as he lives near the human world but isn’t quite a part of it. Eventually, the story takes him to a chimp sanctuary — though, some sanctuary. It’s more like a prison run by the cheap, unsympathetic John Landon (Brian Cox) and staffed by his sadistic son Dodge (Tom Felton). Here, Caesar meets other great apes for the first time — including a bully chimp, a gorilla and an orangutan who also signs. He is first lost in despair but then he starts to figure out the way things run. As he tells the orangutan, illustrating with a stick, one ape is weak and can break but many apes together, like many twigs, are harder to break. (That bundle of twigs thing and the one charismatic leader do not bode well for an ape democracy.)
What truly makes that scene, however, is when the orangutan, who with Caesar has been watching the other chimps wallop each other for no good reason, responds to Caesar’s political philosophizing with “apes stupid.”
Another nice touch movie moment: the TV is always on at the shelter and one of the clips we see is of Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments.
And Heston-style camp is exactly how this movie could have gone, exactly where, honestly, I expected it to go. But it doesn’t. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is actually a solid, old-school science fiction story, one about how the arrogance and over-reach of humans fuels their destruction. Will is well-intentioned and caring but he can’t really do right by Caesar. And despite his attempts to present mankind with a cure, his inability to consider the ramifications of his actions makes his work potentially disastrous. Very classic sci-fi.
Bring to this strong story Serkis, who is brilliant at this kind of acting. He gives Caesar a soul and emotions we can understand even without words. He is able to do things with looks and gestures, just like a human actor would, while still seeming chimp-like. He makes you feel for Caesar and understand him — sort of shocking when you consider that the “character” is largely computer-generated. But much like Serkis did for King Kong, he makes this personality in the body of a different species relatable.
Consider also that we all know, going in, how this movie is going to end. Or at least, we know the direction the story is going. It’s basically a zombie movie where we go in knowing that the zombies will win. The movie is still able to make the journey suspenseful and keep us engaged.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a refreshing update to the franchise, giving you a new way to consider the story of that universe. And it’s a solid late-summer action movie. B
Rated PG-13 for intense and frightening sequences of action and violence. Directed by Rupert Wyatt and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanada Silver, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an hour and 50 minutes long and is distributed by 20th Century Fox.