With a movie called Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a long but descriptive title, there remains a certain aura of inevitable doom to humanity that has the ability to loom over an entire story. Fortunately, this flick does not allow a rebellious crescendo to mask the developmental, unknown details of the ape movie origins. Instead, director Rupert Wyatt creates a unique and innovative take on a franchise that clings to a couple of very memorable lines. Charlton Heston does not make his way into this apparent prequel to the 1968 classic, and the Chimps don’t even get to New York City for that matter, but the west coast revolution of apes against humans is plausibly molded from its foundational blueprint into a somewhat stand-alone production, even though its lengthy title begs for a sequel.
Taking place in San Francisco, the story follows Will Rodman, played by a caring, understanding, but ultimately un-enticing James Franco, a scientist emerging into the cusp of infamy who works at a corporate pharmaceutical giant “Gen-Sys.” He works with emotional and personal ideals motivating his genetic trials that his fair-weathered boss (David Oyelowo) only cares for if its potential capital is in sight; the standard big-wig brand train of thought. Will’s goal is to cure Alzheimer’s disease, the sickness his father (Jon Lithcow) contains and that keeps getting worse with each passing day. Rodman hurriedly finds a formula that works, tested on the company’s influx of chimpanzees, and convinces his boss to let him pitch a world-changing vaccine.
However, during the hopeful presentation, “Bright-eyes,” the intelligent chimp beneficiary of the new medicine freaks out within the lab, slings her self-destructive body into the boardroom, and is consequentially shot down, along with Will’s seemingly bright medical contribution. Yet, with his career now dwindling, he finds a fresh start in Bright Eyes’ unknown baby, hidden away in one of the lab compartments. Rodman, already with parenting responsibilities for his father, becomes a new dad and helps christen the baby chimp “Caesar.” How ironically predestined. Now a comforting friend to a forgetful father and a rebounding animal saver, Caesar becomes a playful pet unaware of his social unburdening.
The story then proceeds briskly, following the young chimp and his development into human culture. Caesar playfully swings himself amongst his attic playroom and his devotion to his upbringing leads him into some domestic trouble with a short-tempered neighbor. The enhanced genetics passed down from Caesar’s mother become clearly evident and are showcased in a way that is subtle, just like his quick-growing patterns from child to adolescent to full-on adult. Will develops a relationship with Caroline (Freida Pinto) and makes brash decisions for his father, including illegally giving him a dosage of his rejected formula, who progressively shows worse symptoms. The innocent tales of a man and his pet ape get seriously complex and the once erratic house pet quickly becomes a community burden.
The only way, well the techy way, to portray the ape and human tension is by being able to visually sell a computer generated animal. The amazing marvels of technology give realistically rendered creations the embodiments and movements formulated by a talented expressionist in Andy Serkis. His ability, displayed also in the character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, demonstrates the incredible advances that performance-capture technology has to offer. Each scowl and visible frustration from Caesar, there are lots, gives more depth to the hairy primate’s character and more credit to these computer images, a clear sign of their closeness to the human race. After all, most of communication is non-verbal.
Generally, animal cruelty is a theme taken seriously and passionately, protested and often graphically expressed by animal rights activists, namely PETA. The movie, though its main purpose is to entertain, certainly tackles some of these issues, but the computer mechanizations, never to fear, are not harmed. Some of the brutality stems from the Animal Control facility which is run by the likes of a father-son duo played by an apathetic Brian Cox and uncouth Tom Felton. The twisted son inexplicably has a temper toward his caged animals, and Felton contains the same moral fibers of his longtime character Draco Malfoy, who in toying and torturing many apes displays no apparent sign of empathy. His questionable temperament can already make him a candidate for being typecast as the typical one-sided baddy. Meanwhile, their blatant superiority adds fire to an increasingly smarter ape population, one whose level of connectedness brilliantly transpires from inter-group turbulence to collective clarity.
It is this sense of gentle monkey character weaving that keeps a foreboding climax scene from happening without a clear cause of motivation. Each brain enhancement that is visibly shown to us through drawings, puzzles, and eventually words, fits accordingly into place and lands appropriately into the vicinity of the story’s arc. Collaboration on the apes’ end comes from the notion that all people want them as caged victims of a fearful society, except of course the animal lovers minority, embodied partially by Caesar’s caretaker Will. Franco may be the only human with some apocalyptic notions, but his range of pathos shrinks with each progressing stage of ape rebellion, nothing too extreme from a man responsible for the ape leader.
Mr. Wyatt’s keen eye for the apes’ plight, the film’s biggest pro, also embeds within it some flaws, a disregard for human development to be exact. There is no real maturation process that occurs within any relationship other than that of person to ape. The subtleties that are cared for not only in the narrative, but in just the chimp’s facial features have more depth than 5 years of Will and Caroline’s seemingly strong union. But again, this is about a future of ape dominion, and so the versatile climbers learn to take center stage naturally.
The sticking point that makes Rise more than just a background enhancing prequel is its insertion of ingenuity amongst a known ending. Unlike Burton’s 2001 Apes adaptation, which had a monkey-master and human-slave dichotomy, there remains a certain side of compassion in this origin story that eventually emanates even in the movie’s erupting breakout. The final sendoff is warmly foreboding, one that puts the pieces of the earth’s future together with our own imagination. Luckily, our enjoyment of this franchise has hinged itself on just that.