Here is what you would call a thinking mans science fiction film. There are ideas and themes that are explored but they are done so in the context of an involving story that plays with variations in science. There is drama, humor and suspense and it all ends with a lot of visual fireworks. This is one of the best films of the summer and it was one that I was largely indifferent to until I saw it. Ten years ago, 20th Century Fox tried to revive the "Planet of the Apes" franchise with the Tim Burton "reboot" of the story. While it made money, it failed to inspire further development of the idea and actually ends with a very stupid revision of the first Planet of the Apes final shot. "Rise" does not attempt to mimic the original story and get the same emotional effect which the original films kicker left audiences with. Instead, it does what a "reboot" or "reimagining" of a movie story should do. It takes the idea and runs with it instead of trying to recreate the moments from the original. The idea is the driving force of the story in this movie. That and the relationship story that develops between our human star and the special effect star of the movie.
As usual, I will try to avoid merely recapping the movie for you but there are a couple of story points that I do want to discuss. The story of man's folly in playing with nature is as old as the hills. In science fiction, Frankenstein is the touchstone for this concept. The basics of this story are laid out almost exactly the same as in a summer picture from 1999, "Deep Blue Sea". There we had sharks that develop intelligence, but that movie is mostly about a horror action plot. "Rise" uses the same pursuit of a drug to fight Alzheimer's disease, and turns it into a mediation on what it means to be humane or intelligent. For the first two thirds of the movie we are treated to a story dealing with family and devotion. Both the humans in the family and the chimp Caesar are warm and caring and faced with matters concerning the functioning of the brain. One character is going backwards and one forwards and it puts immense pressure on the scientist at the center of the story to try to do the right thing. James Franco's character does not want to put his father in a home, he sees that as giving up. When he has to put Caesar into a facility, he basically is mirroring the pain and process that he needed to go through with his dad but could not. No one is a clear bad guy in this situation.
We are expected to empathize with Caesar and we get good reason to. His interaction with the family is warm, and his loyalty to the father suffering from Alzheimer's is admirable and sad at the same time. When he ends up separated from them in a facility with other apes, we can sympathize with his plight because we have all been the new kid on the block and we have seen enough prison movies to know how the system can be oppressive. The hardest plot point for me to get by is the rejection of a chance to return to his life with Franco. I guess at this point, we are to understand that Caeser has made an intelligent decision that his mind is more important than his heart. Once the events that lead to an ape uprising begin to unfold, Caeser is still admirable, but our sympathy for him is diminished a bit by some of the emotional baggage. There are some points late in the film where that sympathy needs to be recalled and it does not quite get there. From my point of view the last act is the weakest emotionally in the film.
The revolution of the apes is not as strong as the evolution of Caesar. While the story of Caesar's maturation and growth all seems real and well developed, the follow through with the other apes seems rushed and overly dramatic. That is not to say it is not exciting and frightening because it is both of those things, but it seems to be in a slightly different movie. The original series of films in the 1970s often ended up as cheap ways to bring an audience in and use a brand name as a way of keeping us coming back. "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" was the best of those sequels and it had the most valid themes. This version tries to tell the same story in a different way using very different themes but still covering the same territory. It is far superior in believability to any of the earlier movies, and is only out-shined by the first "Planet of the Apes" due to it's originality and lead character. There are a couple of lines that are mimicked in the current movie from the first. The change in context makes them punch lines for a joke rather than effective homages to the original. The screen writers should have had enough confidence in their material not to go for those two lies. I won' tell you what the lines are but I will say that they are spoken by a human in reverse of the original intent. Tom Felton, the actor who played Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter films, gets more opportunity to show his acting ability in this movie than he did in most of the Potter films (Half Blood Prince being his opportunity to shine in that series). He gets stuck doing the two lines and it takes away from the performance.
James Franco is solid, and John Lithgow is excellent as the father making the long goodby. The true star of the movie are the special effects folks and the actor Andy Serkis, whom may become ghettoized in motion capture performances because he is always so good. The setting of the film is San Francisco, and the wild animal sanctuary and the research lab and corporate offices seem like they could be part of the city by the bay. The music is strong but not nearly as distinctive as the Jerry Goldsmith electronic score from more than forty years ago. My minor reservations about the third act aside, this film should go a long way to erasing the memory of the Tim Burton version of the story, and it can easily inspire additional films in the series or stand completely alone. If there are more "Apes" movies to come, I hope they are as intelligent and competently put together as "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is.