Rise of the Planet of the Apes is both everything that's good and bad about modern Hollywood blockbuster filmmaking. The apes themselves are an incredibly impressive creation, thanks to WETA Digital's groundbreaking performance-capture technology and a team of talented artists and actors. Paired once again with the immensely talented Andy Serkis, they've crafted not one but a whole host of creatures that may not be unfailingly photorealistic, but deliver on an acting level, allowing the audience to invest in characters visualized through ones and zeroes. The human characters, on the other hand, are a weak, underdeveloped burden on the film, saddled with a tired cautionary tale about science trying to fix things that ought to stay broken.
Rise, a reboot in the truest sense of the word, takes the Apes mythos and alters them, keeping the core elements and rewriting the rest. In both the original series and the new film, the apes rise under Caesar, an ape blessed with extra-intelligence, provoked into starting a revolution thanks to the actions of greedy men. In Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar is a time traveler whose presence in 1991 makes the ape vs. human war a self-fulfilling prophecy, but the new movie spins a more standard tale of science-gone-wrong. Will Rodman (James Franco) pushes forward with an experimental drug he hopes will cure Alzheimer's (specifically, his father's), but a meeting with potential investors goes very wrong, and Will's boss (David Oyelowo) orders all of the lab apes to be put down. In secret, one of Will's lab techs reveals that their most promising test subject gave birth right before her death, and Will reluctantly smuggles the ape home instead of leaving it to be put down with the others. He quickly discovers that the baby ape has inherited the drug's effects genetically, and chooses to keep "Caesar" (Serkis) for long-term research.
The main problem with the Will character is that there's barely any conflict, and what conflict is there is easily resolved. Not only does Will essentially steal Caesar from his lab, he later steals samples of the drug, which he administers to his father. Eventually, thanks to his secret testing, research officially resumes at the lab, without the threat of any consequences for Will and his drug stemming from his actions. Finally, when Will is actually confronted by a decision he doesn't like, he has no hesitation in sacrificing his own desires for the greater good. Upon finding his research, his girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto) tells him, "This is wrong, Will," and it clearly is, but it doesn't feel wrong, because Will is doing something noble, and he'll basically get away with it. The real conflict in Rise concerns Caesar and his increasing feelings of being an outsider, something unnatural, and when a public incident forces Will to hand over Caesar to an animal control shelter, the film finally takes off.
Surrounded by other apes for the first time and trapped in a menacing environment filled with hostile employees (mainly Tom Felton), Caesar struggles with imprisonment and feelings of abandonment, and the film gives itself over to long portions without dialogue. The younger versions of Caesar are a tiny bit spotty, especially in long, unbroken, action-oriented takes, but once Caesar arrives at the shelter, WETA's work takes a quantum leap forward, carrying the movie without any interference from old-fashioned human beings. Consider: several scenes in the movie's second and third act are CG characters emoting against CG characters, and it's never unclear or confusing what one of the apes is thinking or feeling. Of course, these characters have the benefit of real performers underneath, like Serkis, whose subtle glances and emotive eyes come through unfiltered. A short, silent moment where Caesar helps Will's father through an Alzheimer's moment is especially jaw-dropping, and the film only gets more ambitious as it goes along.
There is a better version of Rise of the Planet of the Apes out there in the ether, a version that focused entirely on Caesar's journey (not to mention a version that dropped Felton's two terrible callbacks to the original). Still, Rise is a rare prequel that justifies its existence, and not just through spectacle and excitement but through character. It may sound a bit strange to feel energized by a movie that builds towards the downfall of the human race, but the movie falls in step, both intentionally and unintentionally, in giving us an animal protagonist worth standing behind.
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