Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rise) positions itself as the origin story for the entire Apes franchise. Set in present day San Francisco; Scientist Will Rodman (James Franco) leads a medical laboratory attempting to cure Alzheimer’s disease, which involves primate experimentation. In the process the compound leads to increased intelligence in the primate test subjects and triggers a series of events that leads to a confrontation between humans and apes for the rule of the Planet.
Rise makes you recall J. Robert Oppenheimer, who apart from creating the atomic bomb and summing it up with that chilling quote from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad-Gita, said; "when you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and you argue about what to do about it only after you have had your technical success." Franco's Will is not only technically skilled to find a cure for Alzheimer’s, but he's made it his life work after the torment of watching his father Charles (John Lithgow) rapidly deteriorating before his eyes. When Will stands on the precipice for a cure, a lab accident results in the sample group of apes having to be put down; all but one, Caesar (portrayed via motion capture by the brilliant Andy Serkis). Will discovers that the effects of the compound have been genetically passed from the primate mother to Caesar and he keeps him in secret to continue testing in secret to eventually use it on his father. Rise is about control. Will wants to wield a power over a seemingly unstoppable disease, while having the hubris that his compounds enhanced intelligence gives him the influence to contain the burgeoning mind and physical explosiveness of the rapidly growing chimp. Will has set off a time bomb and the unfolding events form the countdown.
I remember being totally transfixed by Rise as a reboot and a concept from the initial snippets of Weta (Peter Jackson's digital effects studio responsible for Gollum and King Kong) manufactured footage of Serkis’ motion capture (mo-cap) performing the lead ape role of Caesar. While in comparison to the jaw-dropping brilliance of Dawn shows you how far the technology has evolved in only three years watching Serkis lose himself to a more true representation of Ape-ness, with flecks of the leader we come to love in Dawn, the simmering emergence is what you lap up. Every element of Caesar’s journey is perfectly physically portrayed. This film really rides on the audience being attached to an Ape protagonist; although Will (Franco) leads us into the story, as the film progresses he moves to the sideline. Inflating their bodies for confrontation, panting and shrieking in provocation or Caesar's defeated exhales against the concrete wall of his cell or Plexiglas; but for me it's the breath that makes the apes pop.
Franco is hot and cold throughout Rise. In some moments there's a warmth and tenderness that's infectious, in others his fierce protectiveness feels contrived. And despite what you may know about the real life studious insomniac that Franco is, he really feels more at home with cornrows and grills than he does portraying a scientist. John Lithgow is good in anything, case in point, 3rd Rock from the Sun AND Dexter. He such an animated performer that seeing him transition from trapped in a coffin like body to bloom with the experimental drug back to a husk is heartbreaking. Tyler Labine (Tucker and Dale vs. Evil) has a small but role but absolutely integral as the ape handler Franklin. Tom Felton plays Dodge Landon is in 'Malfoy’ mode here but in an unforgiving environment. He gets some of the key scenes and lines with heavy nods to the series and gives them the venom they need for you to be cheering for the apes to murder him. Freida (Slumdog Millionaire) Pinto’s Caroline is really just a passenger in a film. There had to have been a point during the making of Rise where they realised what a human and ape sausage fest was going on and injected her veterinarian and love interest for Will. Apart from a few choice foreboding phrases about Caesar's strength and the least convincing mid action kiss of all time she has little to do, and does less with it.
Rupert Wyatt's direction is sensational. Conjuring great mo-cap performances with a film that is so reliant on the CGI apes being able to interact with physical spaces and real performers is commendable. It's hard to say if his limited experience directing actors was the reason for some of the humans dropping the ball or the writing. That said, Wyatt uses some really great classical effects trickery with leaves raining from trees as swarms of apes get into San Francisco that leaves mouths of streets of suburbia agape.
Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver's writing loses its lustre in the delivery of some of its human performers but does all the right things when the focus shifts almost entirely to the apes. It's got loads of subtle (and not so subtle) references to the original Planet of the Apes from the Icarus (Charlton Heston's ship from the original) setting off into space to ape characters being named after original characters or stars. It doesn't ever feel like they're so obvious that the characters should turn to you and wink. As the climax begins to ramp up though the greed fuelled negligence of Will's employer GENSYS felt like it was significantly turned up. Once they've regressed into only seeing dollar signs no matter the cost, it does make for a great foe to root against in the ape escape.
In any film that you see, you hope that there is at least one moment that makes it worth the price of your ticket. In Rise, there is a moment that nearly blew me out of my seat on first viewing and continues to give me goosebumps. Caesar's defiant "NO" and whispering "Caesar is home," to Will makes all the sense, but also surprises. It's a truly awesome moment.
If you’re a fan of the series, you’ll love it; if you’re not a fan it may make you one. And it will probably push you back to the cinema to see Dawn.
[rating=3] and a half
Blake Howard - follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Rupert Wyatt
Written by: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver
Starring: James Franco, John Lithgow, Andy Serkis, Brian Cox, Tom Felton, Tyler Labine, and Freida Pinto