Usually when Hollywood decides to mess with classics, they follow the misguided adage that “bigger is better.” Clearly, with the sea of atrocious remakes, sequels, even mid-quels of the past few years, this is certainly not the case. As a prequel to a franchise where apes have taken over humanity, Rise of the Planet of the Apes could have been an overblown affair, featuring CGI-ridden action sequences between humans and apes at the expense of plot. However, Rise is a different beast — two thirds character piece, one-third action, this prequel is a captivating origin story that entertains not on cheap thrills, but on substance.
The film follows Will Rodman (James Franco), who, bolstered by the case of his own Alzheimer-stricken father (John Lithgoe), tries to develop a cure for Alzheimer’s disease. As a result of a scientific experiment with “the cure”, ape Caesar is born with borderline human intelligence. Raised at home by Will, Caesar develops and struggles with his own existence as a solitary ape different from all others of his species. After tragically being thrown into an abusive ape holding facility, Caesar uses vials of the cure on his fellow apes, setting off a chain of events proving detrimental to humanity.
While it may appear ridiculous to describe Caesar as a human character, Caesar is indeed the main protagonist of the film. The intelligent ape is magnificently brought to life by digital animation and the expressions of Andy Serkis, who famously plays Gollum in Lord of the Rings. Caesar is certainly the best animal CGI character I’ve ever seen, and it is often quite jarring how humanlike his expressions are. With the help of CGI, Rise is able to connect the audience to Caesar on the emotional level, which is central to the ultimate success of the film. Scenes like when Will reveals to Caesar the truth behind the experiment that made him intelligent, but killed his mother, and when Caesar paints a window on the wall in his holding cell like the one at home, are particularly heartbreaking.
Ironically, Caesar may be the most human character in the film; other characters are less developed. Although he puts on an adequate performance, Franco serves mainly to propel the plot along and appears bored sometimes throughout the movie. Freida Pinto of Slumdog Millionaire is terribly underused, becoming the token “girlfriend” character but only uttering a few lines. The only human character that truly captures the audience is Lithgoe. While mental illnesses and disease are sometimes overplayed, Lithgoe believably plays an Alzheimer’s sufferer. His relationship with Caesar is a highlight of the film, as Caesar virtually lights up his life and helps him through the disease
Despite its flaws in its human characters, the development of Caesar’s character drives Rise forward and elevates the film above a standard action movie. The Apes do not actually rise at all until two-thirds into the runtime, but the story doesn’t drag on, because the audience is submerged in the Caesar character. When the action does arrive, it doesn’t disappoint. The central action set piece of a battle on the Golden Gate Bridge is effectively done, as Will runs across the bridge trying to find Caesar while the apes fight for their freedom. The result is not difficult to predict, but it is the attachment to Caesar’s character that makes the scene so exhilarating.
Still, those looking for an action packed movie should look elsewhere. Rise is smart, and doesn’t make you feel stupid watching it — even if it is a movie about intelligent apes. I’ll admit, probably like many looking forward to the film, I thought it would focus more on apes taking over the world with a little more action. Unfortunately, Rise ends a little abruptly after the Golden Gate battle, leaving some open ends. Although this was on purpose — the producers behind the film already said that it is intended as a reboot for a new franchise — it does make the film seem incomplete as a standalone movie.
Regardless, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an effective origin story and leaves hope of a likewise high quality sequel. Those who are fans of the original series will enjoy a reference about a certain spaceship called the Icarus, going missing in outer space, which may very well be the direction that the series is heading. However, the film proves that a good movie can be made from the Planet of the Apes backstory, and there is plenty more to tell before Hollywood resorts to another cheap remake.