In a recent Playboy interview, James Franco talked about his work in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes the way a lot of people talk about punching in at Taco Bell, referring to it as “actor-for-hire” work and saying he didn’t consider it “an example of my creativity.” While those sound like the words of an actor distancing himself from an obvious stinker, Franco could have just been expressing what’s obvious from the film’s first frames: This isn’t a film driven by humans. They aren’t completely removed from the action—someone has to keep the plot rolling. But as Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes makes good on its title’s promise, humanity gets pushed toward the margins as the apes take center stage. In a film not short on clever touches, one of the cleverest is the way it makes its human characters increasingly irrelevant as the world they thought was theirs starts to slip through their fingers.
A prequel/reboot of the Planet Of The Apes series, Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes ignores Tim Burton’s 2001 remake—which is fine—and samples liberally from 1972’s Conquest Of The Planet Of The Apes in telling the story of how one smart ape’s tumultuous life leads to a general ape revolt. Here, it’s Caesar, a chimpanzee made super-intelligent via a drug Franco developed to reverse the effects of Alzheimer’s disease. When Franco’s lab, a high-tech but low-security facility, ends his experiments after an unfortunate incident in which one of the test subjects wreaks havoc in the middle of an important meeting, Franco rescues the infant Caesar from destruction and brings him home to the Alzheimer’s-afflicted father (John Lithgow) who inspired Franco’s work. As the years pass, Franco raises Caesar as his own while secretly administering the wonder drug to Lithgow. He experiences great success with both ape and dad, until both experiments hit the wall that movie mad science inevitably hits, and things take a turn for the worse.
It’s a familiar story, and thankfully, it isn’t the one at the film’s center. That belongs to Caesar, who begins Rise as an especially clever baby who grows into a thoughtful adult played (via some truly impressive motion-capture effects) by Andy Serkis, who previously brought Gollum and King Kong to life for Peter Jackson. Over the course of Rise, Serkis gets to play Caesar as a petulant teen, a misunderstood youth, the protagonist of a prison drama, and finally, as an ape Che Guevara. It’s a remarkably expressive performance, registering subtle changes in personality and attitude and conveying a coiled sense of physical menace that suggests the nice chimp we’ve gotten to know over the course of the movie might not be nice much longer.
Where Conquest openly drew parallels with the tumultuous early ’70s, Rise doesn’t seem overly concerned with the real world, apart from some vague suggestions that animal testing might have moral consequences. Instead, director Rupert Wyatt focuses on whisking the story along toward a stunning final setpiece staged in a fog-drenched San Francisco. Wyatt brings a light touch to the potentially grim material—too light when it drops in some groan-inducing references to the original film—but he keeps the action compelling whether focusing on apes as they run amok or as they quietly contemplate their next move. As for the people, the chilling suggestion for both the world within the film and the world without it is that they might not be necessary.