Academics like Jane Goodall and Dian Fossey have said that humans can learn much about their own existence from primates. On film, these discussions have long been handled by the Planet of the Apes franchise, often with less-than-stellar results. So, when the time for a reboot arose, it came as quite a surprise when the resulting feature turned out to be quite good.
At a research laboratory in San Francisco, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) is looking into whether a cure can be found for Alzheimer’s disease, an illness which is greatly afflicting his father Charles (John Lithgow). As part of his work, Will has been trialling potential cures on a number of apes, assessing whether any of his drugs can alleviate the effects of Alzheimer’s. Early testing shows promise, but after a violent outburst from one of Will’s chimp subjects – resulting in her being shot and killed – he is forced to cease his research.
Unbeknownst to anybody, the now-deceased chimpanzee had been caring for a young son, and was seeking to protect him from any harm. Will comes across this newborn while clearing out the erstwhile ape’s cage, and takes it upon himself to nurture and raise the young chimp, which he names Caesar. Within a few months, Caesar is demonstrating cognitive abilities hitherto unseen in primates, including the ability to communicate fluently in sign-language and understand spoken words.
While Will treats Caesar like an equal, Caesar cannot help but feel like he doesn’t belong. That belief is most profound when Caesar violently attacks a hostile neighbour, leaving the suburb’s residents terrified. With this act, Will is forced to send Caesar to a primate shelter, leaving the latter an outcast once again and feeling devastated. Not helping matters is the shelter’s caretaker Dodge Landon (Tom “Malfoy” Felton) who constantly taunts and inflicts pain on Caesar’s simian brethren.
Unlike the previous Planet of the Apes movies, the primates in Rise are created with computer-generated imagery rather than humans in prosthetics. Using motion-capture technology, the film-makers are able to animate Caesar and company into live-action scenery, with actors providing a reference for movement and facial expressions. Acting as Caesar’s reference is the King of motion-capture, Andy Serkis, who previously played Gollum in Lord of the Rings and the titular character in Peter Jackson’s King Kong remake.
Having the apes animated doesn’t make the film any more or less enjoyable, but seeing such technology on-screen does leave quite the impression, which is paradoxical to the human actors. These characters are little more than one-dimensional stereotypes, lacking any complexity or nuance, with Will and his father being the only ones given time to develop. Faring worst in this regard is Will’s love interest Caroline (Freida Pinto), who serves no purpose whatsoever to the story.
The other humans don’t fare much better, as their secondary plot is only there to set up the (then unconfirmed) sequels – which, to be fair, the movie does very well. And aside from that issue, there isn’t much to fault, with decent acting, great cinematography and a story told visually rather than through dialogue. Yet it is the third act where Rise of the Planet of the Apes comes through strongest, with a thoughtful and satisfying resolution to the movie’s conflict.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes represents a sound reintroduction to the themes and discussions of the long-running franchise. Despite the lack of personality in its human characters, the film impresses with its motion-capture technology and smart direction. But the best is yet to come.