We should know what to expect. It’s there in the title: Rise of the Planet of the Apes. If we don’t get to see simians taking over the world, we’re going to be sorely disappointed. More than that, I was primed from the start to cheer on some chimp vs. man warfare, and any scene removed from the progression towards an apocalyptic showdown had me feeling oddly impatient.
Thankfully there aren’t many wasted moments in this efficiently told prequel to the 2001 remake of the 1968 science fiction classic Planet of the Apes, which was about astronauts who find themselves stranded on a mysterious world ruled by apes, only to discover … well, if you don’t know that movie’s big twist then you probably shouldn’t read any further.
The story of Rise begins with Will Rodman (James Franco), a scientist who believes he’s found the cure to Alzheimer’s, which he’s been testing on chimps in his San Francisco lab. His star subject, named Bright Eyes, displays a remarkable increase in intelligence following treatments with the miracle drug. But just as the lab is preparing to begin human trials, Bright Eyes breaks free from her cage and goes on a violent rampage before being shot by a security officer. The drug company pulls the plug on the program.
The lab’s chimp handler, Franklin (Tyler Labine), discovers that Bright Eyes’ behavior may have been due to an instinct to protect her unborn child. He manages to deliver the baby despite the death of the mother, and convinces Will to adopt the day-old chimp.
After the baby displays signs that drug-enhanced intelligence has been passed to him from his mother, Will decides to secretly continue his experiments with the Alzheimer’s drug. Finding a cure is personal for him, because his father Charles (John Lithgow) already suffers from the disease.
The film fast-forwards three years, and then another five, so that we soon see the young chimp — named Caesar — as a mature, fully grown animal trying to understand his place in the world. “Am I a pet?” he unhappily asks Will through sign language. Caesar does a lot of scowling as he comes to understand how his kind is treated by humans.
The apes in the film are CGI creations, and obviously far more believable than was actor Roddy McDowell in a monkey mask in the original series of Planet of the Apes films. (McDowell played Caesar in 1972’s Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, which has a storyline very different from this film’s.) Motion-capture techniques were used with real actors cast in the roles of the apes, resulting in CGI that features the weight of reality, rather than merely looking like glorified cartoons wandering a live-action set, as CGI often can.
A violent confrontation with a angry neighbor lands Caesar under a court order to be removed to a primate shelter. It’s there that he is first exposed to other apes and where some nasty treatment sets him on his path to becoming a revolutionary, evolutionary leader.
The story’s resolution accomplishes just enough to satisfy the demands of the title while leaving ample room for a sequel (or would that be another prequel?) Nifty visuals over the end credits wordlessly fill in another major component, which is hinted at by what happens to Franklin after he accidentally ingests the Alzheimer’s drug.
A lot of really dumb decisions lead to the finale. Thankfully the battle through the streets of San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge manages to render the wholly implausible just plausible enough to entertain. I’ve never seen a gorilla take down a helicopter before, and I’m thankful for having had the privilege.