Rise of the Planet of the Apes

In theaters.

The title makes it clear that this is a zero-sum game. We have only one planet, and if the apes are taking over, it stands to reason to humanity is rapidly losing ground. In short, Rise of the Planet of the Apes depicts an apocalyptic event. It should be depressing (think every post-nuclear movie ever), yet it isn’t because human beings aren’t the true protagonists here. Rise is ultimately about the apes, and as such, it’s darkly triumphant, a feel-good twist on a familiar post-apocalyptic story. Rise might not be a great movie, but it’s a hell of a lot more fun than I expected.

Things start out typically enough with a human lead, scientist Will Rodman (James Franco). Will is developing a powerful brain drug to cure Alzheimer’s—a personal crusade for him as his father, Charles (John Lithgow), is afflicted with the terrible disease. But Will’s boss pulls the plug on the research when one of the chimpanzee test subjects goes on a rampage. Will learns too late that the chimpanzee was just protecting her newborn baby (the drug wasn’t responsible for her apparent aggression), so he smuggles the infant chimp home and continues his research in secret—on the chimp exposed to the drug in utero and, eventually, on his ailing father.

From there, the chimpanzee, Caesar, steals the spotlight. Caesar grows from a wildly precocious child to a moody, frustrated teenager. When his suburban existence is exposed, Will is forced to move him to an overcrowded ape “sanctuary” run by sadists. From there, prison break and revolution! Will might be a void of charisma (Franco is sleepwalking his way to a paycheck), but Caesar is a born leader.

No single person can be credited with creating the character of Caesar, but praise surely goes first to Andy Serkis, the actor whose face and body provide the foundation for the CGI animation of the chimpanzee. Serkis has a distinguished history of this kind of motion-capture work, having also served as the human being behind Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 adaptation. Both Gollum and Kong are extraordinarily expressive creatures, at once remarkably alien and immediately recognizable, and Caesar follows in that tradition. He only speaks a handful of words, but his every gesture holds great eloquence. He is funny and insightful, courageous and visionary, righteously angry and boldly merciful. And he never—not once—looks like a human in a high-tech ape suit. Caesar is unmistakably nonhuman; Serkis effectively becomes a chimpanzee to play Caesar, and as such, he delivers a stunningly powerful performance.

Of course he doesn’t deliver that performance alone. Like Gollum and Kong before him, Caesar is also the work of visual effects company Weta Digital, whose work seamlessly integrates real and animated images. The most impressive thing about Caesar is that he doesn’t look like an effect. If anything, he feels more real than the flat human characters, convincingly existing alongside them and drawing the eye every time. With Caesar added to their combined filmography, Serkis and Weta are starting to look like one of the greatest creative partnerships in cinematic history.

To be fair, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver haven’t provided any of the traditional actors with much material (with the possible exception of Lithgow, who is given just enough to create a simple but heartbreaking portrait of the tragedy of Alzheimer’s disease). Any attempts to worm something substantial out of the story are foiled by its absurdity: Will’s company is ludicrously incompetent, the men running the sanctuary are ridiculously sadistic, and everything about their interactions with the apes feels hopelessly contrived. If I may steal a turn of phrase from my brother (something I fear I’ve been doing too often of late, though damn it, I love this line), Rise is populated entirely by straw men.

Fortunately, those straw men aren’t the point, and Caesar is awesome. His emotional journey, becoming a better man than his “father” ever was, manages to earn its clichés, and his strategizing—uniting the apes, enhancing their intelligence, and leading them in revolt—is enormously compelling. Sure, it might be a bit silly that the experimental drug not only boosts the apes’ brainpower but seemingly makes them impervious to glass, but that doesn’t diminish the raw energy of the action scenes. The kineticism is thrilling, and the finale on the Golden Gate Bridge does a great job of locating the various players in relation to one another so that we can follow Caesar’s tactics—and the ways the humans underestimate him.

With Caesar leading the charge—against the likes of Franco at his whiniest and Tom “Draco Malfoy” Felton at his most sneeringly evil—it’s no wonder that the impending collapse of humanity doesn’t seem all that tragic. Who cares about characters who scarcely leave more impression than extras? For the space of two hours, Caesar can make you a traitor to your species.