Following Tim Burton's less than successful reimagining of Planet of the Apes, I had my doubts when news came out for Rise of the Planet of the Apes, charting the ascent of the simians in a prequel. But it turned out to be the best surprise of the summer (or the year, for that matter).
Like the original Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, Rise deals with how ape intelligence emerged and toppled humans as dominant species. James Franco is brilliant scientist Will Rodman, working on a virus to repair damage caused by Alzheimer's for Gen-sys, a pharmaceutical company. They've been testing the drug on apes, who begin to display a side benefit—on their healthy brains, it increases intelligence ALOT. Will's father suffers from dementia, prompting him to take some unorthodox risks with the drug. When the ape subjects are exterminated, it's discovered one primate was pregnant, and Will takes him home to raise. The movie charts the infant Caesar's growth and development in a human home, and the inevitable coming of age when he realizes he's not like everyone else.
Rise is directed by Rupert Wyatt, and presents a successful reimagining of the origin story, that requires very little suspension of disbelief (compared to the original Conquest). The genetic enhancement element was enough of a modern day spin to create a believable mythology, and also picked up on threads seen in films such as Splice and I Am Legend. My only quibble is that some of the unenhanced apes maybe exhibited a little too much intelligence to start.
The human characters received little development, but I don't necessarily find that to be a flaw in the story, given this is all about the apes. Franco's Will is the most well-rounded of the bunch, though that isn't saying too much. But he does convey a devotion for Caesar's best interests. Jon Lithgow has a small but pivotal role as Franco's suffering father, Charles. But Franco's girlfriend, and his pharmaceutical boss come off as just a convenient sidekick and two-dimensional bad guy, respectively. The other villains of the piece are none other than Stryker (X2) and Draco Malfoy himself, who play things without even a touch of empathy, and finally Will's airline pilot neighbour is so over the top, it's a bit ridiculous. A little more humanity among the human adversaries would have helped to make the issue less black and white.
But this was Caesar's story, and any future movies in a post-human world can provide an alternatively fleshed out human character as the focus among the ape majority. Caesar and his other CGI creations certainly steal the show. The actions of the humans are just not as compelling as watching the first glimmer of intelligence manifest among the simians. Andy Serkis conveys a great deal of emotion through the motion-capture, making for some eerie moments accomplished with simple eye movements and subtle expressions. There are several other primate CGI characters that have their own personalities, and no doubt these are set up for future sequels.
There are plenty of call outs to the original Ape films that provide some smirks to those in the know. But Rise not only pays homage to the past, it builds its own successful storyline, and answers important questions about how a small band of intelligent apes could possibly rise to prominence over the humans.
A new Apes franchise opens up exciting possibilities for sequels that aren't just money-grabbers, but a modern template for a new Planet of the Apes continuity, starting from the beginning rather than working in reverse like the originals. I would love to see the next film start several years ahead with a new generation of apes dealing with the human situation established at the end of the movie, accessing technology, developing their new culture and society. Hopefully the creators treat the franchise with some care (like Harry Potter) and not run it off the rails (like Terminator).
So this was an unexpected gem of a summer movie, and a good contender for one of the best science fiction entries for 2011. It provided an ominous but satisfying conclusion with the anticipation of further instalments. I highly recommend it for fans of the original, as well as newbies who want a smart and well-constructed popcorn flick.