Directed by Rupert Wyatt, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, follows Will Rodman (James Franco), a man of science seeking the cure to Alzheimer’s because the disease has left his father (the always excellent John Lithgow, unfortunately not reprising his role from Harry and the Hendersons) a shadow of his former self. (Note: In movies scientists never seem to be pursuing anything as tawdry as advanced knowledge, personal glory, or god forbid, cold hard cash.) After his promising new treatment is scrapped because one of the lab apes goes berserk during his pitch to investors, Rodman is ordered to have the other apes put down. But he and the chimp handler, played by Tyler Labine of the recently cancelled Mad Love, conspire to sneak the youngest ape out of the lab and into Rodman’s home. There it bonds with both Rodmans, and displays signs of superior intelligence, a byproduct of his mother’s treatment with Rodman’s drug.
After some further plot developments, including the dreaded necessity of repeatedly using the subtitles “_____ Years Later”, the super-ape, dubbed Caesar, has been forced into captivity in a dilapidated preserve run by Brian Cox and his stupid and cruel offspring. I think from here you can, using context clues and the commercial advertisements, finish the story. Rise of the Planet of the Apes is not really trying to surprise you, although one moment, which I won’t spoil even if they might have spoiled it themselves, did catch me off guard and, surprisingly, made my hairs stand up a little bit.
The movie is very pleasant to watch, visually speaking. For the most part the apes were rendered, if not always realistically, at least never distractingly unrealistic. Caesar’s portrayal by the motion-cap expert Andy Serkis is rightly gaining praise, even if the viral marketing campaign to generate Oscar buzz for the performance is a bit unlikely.
Heading into the movie I was wary of what I would see from a James Franco lead performance. Since the Oscars it’s too tempting to view his whole life as a performance art piece. But here Franco disappears into his role quite easily and leaves no lingering doubt as to the sincerity of his performance. I’ve read some criticism of the movie for giving Frieda Pinto’s character so little to do besides look pretty, but this is an action movie, not a tearjerker or something, and she does look very pretty, so I’m not going to complain.
There may not be much serious going on, but I did find myself asking some interesting questions while watching Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Questions like, will our scientific curiosity someday really lead to our downfall as a species? If apes were capable of speech, would anything justify our supposed dominion? Is this movie asking me to root for the humans or the apes? Am I a bad person if internally, I’m screaming, just start shooting the apes, they don’t even have guns?
Despite the obvious ridiculousness of its central premise, Rise of the Planet of the Apes does an unsettlingly good job making its plot just plausible enough to make you promise yourself that you will move if your next-door neighbor ever buys a pet chimpanzee.