Before they devolved into a campy excuse for a quick buck, THE PLANET OF THE APES franchise was a nicely rendered and clever conceit for commenting on the human condition by having apes stand in for us. RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES, the prequel that explains how it all happened, is a worthy installment in the vein of the original, though in this case, it flips the conceit, having actual humans stand in for the humans as the apes take an erudite gander at us.
The time is the sort-of present. A manned mission to Mars in in the works, the one that will return its three astronauts to a world that is strange, yet strangely familiar. Its strictly background and a nod to fans of the franchise, as is the sight of chimp playing with a Statue of Liberty toy, and a disgruntled primate handler demanding that one of his less than hygienic charges remove his hand. The wink and nod to the fans is incidental; camp is not the goal.
That real story is Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), a brilliant (is there any other kind in this sort of film?) genetic engineer working for one of those big, money-hungry conglomerates. He wants to cure Alzheimers to save his fading father (John Lithgow). The company wants scandalously huge profits. Their dreams coincide when a serum designed to repair the brain does something even better in Number 9, one of the chimps on which it has been tested. Her intelligence zooms, the side-effects are non-existent, and just when human trials are set to begin and the profits to roll in landslide fashion right after them, something unpleasant happens of a nicely metaphorical nature that shuts it all down.
Undeterred, what with his father still slipping away, Will appropriates company property in the form of an orphan chimp with the magic serum delivered to him in utero. Will continues the study, with Caesar, as the baby chimp is named, proving to be not just smarter than other apes of his age and species, but smarter than humans of similar age. He also picks up language better than a human kid his age, and as he grows from baby to moody adolescent, his vocabulary and curiosity grows even faster, as do his expectations of what he wants from the world from which he is isolated, but which he watches in fascination from his attic window.
The trick in making a story of such a speculative nature work is creating a solid foundation, the which is done here. The science is plausible enough to make the leap into the unknown, but, more importantly, the emotional tug is irresistible enough to bring the audience along without putting up a struggle. Though the doe-eyed Freida Pinto is thrown in as a love interest for Franco, and there are maddeningly fleeing references to a female chimpay or may ot have caught Caesar’s eye, the real love story is that of father and son. Franco throwing caution to the wind to find the cure for his fathers Alzheimers, and thinking with his heart when it comes to taking care of his surrogate son, Caesar. No moment is more fraught with suspense than the one where Caesar asks Will whether or not he is the humans pet. The pause by Franco is measured in milliseconds, but bespeaks the uncomfortable pass they have come to as he reassures Caesar that he isnt. Its an issue that lurks throughout the film, as animals who havent had Caesars advantages are used and used up without regard to their status as unique entities.
While the consideration of bioethics of many types underscore the story and make it more than just a philosophical exercise. This is also a first-rate thriller. Like the emotional point of view, the cameras is often that of the apes, swooping madly as the apes negotiate the world on their terms from room to room in the Rodman household, or through the wilds of Muir Woods, or swarming the Golden Gate Bridge in a devastatingly effective action sequence that plays to heart and adrenalin. Yet, for all the physical havoc, there is also a performance by Andy Serkis as Caesar that is one of the most remarkable in cinematic history. CGI has transmuted his appearance onto that of a chimp, but there is no doubt that it is Serkis creating an indelible character of vivid complexity, the simian face and form as full of emotion as that of a human, while never succumbing to anthropomorphism. The childlike joy, the troubled confusion, and finally a stare of cool, focused malevolence as Caesar stands up to his tormentor physically and intellectually that is shocking for its intelligence and for its implacable desire for retribution. That is not technology, that is an actor displaying genius. If this isnt award-winning work, then the definition of award-winning needs to be re-thought.
RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES is a splendidly wrought cautionary tale about good intentions executed with a refreshingly non-didactic subtlety. There is more here to ponder than the state-of-the-art motion capture programs, or how cool an orangutan looks swinging through the urban jungle.