SPOILERS and descriptions of scenes, if not the entire plot of the movie, are revealed in the following paragraphs. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK!
It’s been suggested that James Franco is a rather bland actor. Well, his plain vanilla performance seems to be exactly what was called for in this reboot of the seemingly indestructible Planet of the Apes saga. That’s because Franco’s character, as well as all of the other humans in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, are really just supporting actors to Andy Serkis’ brilliantly vivid performance as Caesar, the genetically-altered chimpanzee who will become the catalyst and central icon of a future ape revolution.
This is Caesar’s story all the way. Orphaned through a cruel misunderstanding only hours after his birth, and having inherited exponentially-increasing intelligence from his drug-test subject mother, Caesar grows to adolescence in the care of his kindly but somewhat patronizing adoptive human “father”, the scientist (Franco) who invented the dangerous drug hoping for a cure for his father’s Alzheimer’s disease.
RISE marches right in step with that age-old science fiction theme that “it’s wrong to meddle with Mother Nature.” Anyone with half a brain (which describes most of the humans in this story) can see that good intentions cannot excuse what unsurprisingly turns out to be a Really Bad Idea: Make even MORE of this insufficiently-tested, side-effect-laden drug! Fail to correctly implement the most basic safety precautions while administering it! Then in the name of misguided compassion inject some illegally into an unsuspecting human subject just to see what happens! After all, what could go wrong? (Where is the FDA during all this, I ask you?)
In reality, man meddles with nature all the time, and thankfully so for a great many of us humans including myself. I would not be here to write this review without the invention of medicines that help my heart keep beating despite the damage it has sustained, nor would my parents have lived to ripe old age without the drugs and machines that helped them breathe and function. But when does meddling go too far? And who gets to decide what is too far exactly? These troubling questions are quickly glossed over in RISE, as most of the scientific blunders have already happened before the film even begins.
But back to the story. For all intents and purposes, and despite his continual denial, this amiable but dull scientist keeps Caesar at home as some sort of secret lab experiment and superhuman pet. But even pets grow up, and Caesar is no trick pony; the drug has allowed him to become a fully-realized sentient being who begins to question who and why he is, and his desire for self-determination becomes apparent. Only his affection for and bonding with his “dad” and “granddad” keep him from looking for a different purpose to his life.
That is, until “grandad” gets accosted by a nasty neighbor (David Hewlett, mugging his way through another role that luckily doesn’t call for any more of a performance than that), and Caesar’s natural protective instincts (Is this more human or more animal? You be the judge) are aroused. Nasty neighbor gets taught a painful lesson, and of course for his outburst our hero immediately gets carted off to a far-less-pleasant-than-advertised animal facility/jail with even nastier keepers who treat him worse than an animal, and where the rest of the movie plays out pretty much as expected, climaxing in more of an ape escape than an all-out revolt. Through all of this we find that we are are rooting for Caesar and his companions all the way! Those damned, stupid humans deserve what they get! Go, apes! (The actual revolution must be slated for the obviously impending sequel.)
RISE is a very satisfying origin story, with some of the most realistic animal-recreation CGI ever yet seen on the big screen. I could go on and on praising Serkis’ performance, but he wasn’t the only motion-capture actor in this film embodying the ape community, and I’d love to see an in-depth behind-the-scenes film on just how those Weta Digital VFX guys [Avatar, Lord of the Rings trilogy, Kong] combined CGI and human performances to create such incredible magic. (HERE’S a short featurette which only wets the appetite!)
Plus, RISE is chock full of quiet little inside references to the previous APE movies, which are lovely tribute to the other APES films and their actors and directors, but which much of the audience with whom I watched the movie did not “get”. In fact, I doubt that most of my audience had ever even seen the original films, and in reality their viewing is not really necessary before seeing RISE. It works beautifully all on its own as the beginning of a brand-new (r)evolutionary franchise.