The movie is most compelling when it thinks about the ape and the human's likeness (and so critiques racism and speciesism), when Cesar and Will face each other or respond to one another.
"You know everything about the human brain," Steven (David Oyelowo) tells his star researcher, Will (James Franco), "Except the way it works." Steven, head of the big pharma company Gen-Sys, knows something about that. Will's struggles to develop a drug to treat Alzheimer's have just exploded in the boardroom -- literally -- at the start of Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Will is as surprised as anyone in the movie when "Bright Eyes" (acted by Terry Notary) smashes through a giant glass wall and lands loudly on the conference table while board members look suitably aghast. You will have guessed in the preceding minutes, of course, that precisely because Bright Eyes is the most successful subject of experiments for the drug ALZ 112, she will do something like this, something spectacular and violent and wildly exciting. You may even have guessed that the movie will have intercut her rampage through the lab with Will's exultant speech to the corporation, for science and business are such notoriously rancorous bedfellows. And you will definitely know from frame one that Will's work will lead to an intelligent ape, and eventually, the end of the world as we now it.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes is predictable for a number of reasons, not least being that it’s a reboot of a famous franchise. Even viewers who haven't seen Charlton Heston protest those "stinking paws" in Planet of the Apes have seen the scene in some montage or mimicry, and know the concept: on a future earth, apes talk and wear clothes and humans are mutants. The new movie, directed by Rupert Wyatt, lays out how this happens, as humans overreach and apes strike back.
It's not a terrible or unusual idea to suggest that whatever apocalypse is coming begins with corporate greed. Steven's insistence that Will's work produce a profit is the same idea that drives most contemporary science fiction and/or horror and or/melodrama (see: 28 Days Later or Splice). Mixing this truism with an argument against people experimenting on animals, Rise seems almost to be a morally responsible movie. It uses clichés, CGI, and summertime actionation (and not 3D) to make a worthy point, say, greed is bad.
Of course, the apes know this intuitively. Or more precisely, they're instructed by the abuses heaped on them. Bright Eyes has good and understandable reasons for her upset, as does her son, Cesar (Andy Serkis), when Will takes him home and teaches him to sign and live in the attic. Cesar's born with the effects of 112 already circulating inside him (because the scientists in the Gen Sys lab are really that stupid, that they didn't notice Bright Eyes was pregnant). At their burby San Francisco home, he bonds mightily with Will and Will's dad Charles (John Lithgow), whose own Alzheimer's gives Will an extra-special reason to make a successful drug.
This domestic sequences in the film, when Cesar's something like a child, swinging adorably from rafters and leaping over appliances, are all calm before the storm, of course. They're entertaining and effectively intelligent calm, however, primarily because of the complicated relationship established between Cesar (named by Charles in a fit of Shakespearean genuflection) and Will (probably named under similar circumstances). They're brothers and father-and-son, they're rivals and best friends, they're loving and also not wholly mutually trusting. When Will brings out the leash before they embark on public outings, Cesar eyes it with increasing distaste. He wonders if he's a pet, and Will doesn’t have a good answer. All he can do is reveal Cesar's traumatic past, the loss of his mother and the big creepy-looking facility where he was born and, in effect, inadvertently engineered, with medication no one knew he was getting.
The actors present this relationship convincingly, despite and because of the performance-capture technology that constructs Serkis' part of it. And indeed, the story he's telling here is much like Gollum's (which he told in Lord of the Rings), that of a lonely, one of a kind, deeply angry and desirous being, someone whose feeling and thinking are easily imaginable to the rest of us, but whose situation is pretty beyond our comprehension. Cesar's rage and resistance emerge out of multiple abuses, to be sure, but also out of Will's efforts to be kind and his numerous mistakes in judgment. He doesn’t know how the ape brain works either -- perhaps especially as it becomes very like the human brain.
The troubles in their relationship are exemplified in the film's utterly predictable and idiotic attempt to contain it -- by giving Will a girlfriend. Much like another sort of buddy movie (or Peter Pan, or Zookeeper), this one ensures you won't worry these boys are too tight by inserting between them a female. Caroline (Freida Pinto) is a vet at the zoo, who stitches an injury Cesar suffers during an altercation with a pissy neighbor (David Hewlett) and agrees to a date with Will proposed by Cesar. Or so Will translates, for her and us. Though the exchange is cute (as well as perverse), it's not clear why or how Cesar might see himself as a wingman at this moment, though it does become clearer later that he feels jealous of the affection these two humans share.
For some reason, Caroline buys Will's lie that Cesar is just a regular chimp with exceptional signing abilities. Or more precisely, she buys this because she is a plot device (and must be outraged when she learns about the lie). In this she's much like other characters who serves as plot devices, including Charles or Steve or Buck (Richard Ridings), the gorilla Cesar meets when he is, at last and inevitably caged in a primates facility, or even Dodge (Tom Felton), the brutal keeper at that facility. All of these supporting players help to illustrate the bond and the loss between Cesar and Will. That Caroline is the only girl is culturally telling but also weak storytelling: the boys are straight, if confused, and of like minds, even if they're of different species.
Caroline's awkward insertion aside, the movie is most compelling when it thinks about this likeness (and so critiques racism and speciesism), when Cesar and Will face each other or respond to one another. Occasional other moments in Rise suggest the ways that humans and apes might view the world differently, as when Cesar breaks a squad of primates out of the facility and heads to the zoo for reinforcements by way of the suburbs. As they swing through trees, the branches rustle in waves and human citizens wonder, their faces turned up at the strange effect. More than one scene makes clear that the Golden Gate Bridge is metaphorical as well as the site of a big showdown between local law enforcement and the apes. Misty, majestic, and so very long, it suggests the distance between humans and apes, which is widening as it's shrinking: the more apes seem like humans, as they learn to think and conspire and speak, the more they understand the damages humans do.
But even as it makes such inspired thematic moves, Rise also remains constrained by its narrative and technical limits (the CGI for the apes amassing is distractingly weak). Cesar's frustration is metaphorical in more ways than one. Why can't humans figure out a way to tell his story in a way that is not just replaying their own?