The latest descendant of the half-century-old de-evolution concept that began with Pierre Boulle's novel, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an origin story. Predicting an ape-supremacist future, Rupert Wyatt's film is set in a contemporary America so preoccupied with the Chinese and the coming Singularity that it's hardly prepared for a rearguard attack by evolutionary also-rans.
At Bay Area corporation Gen-Sys, Will Rodman (James Franco) heads a research laboratory that tests brain-boosting drugs on chimpanzees in hopes of discovering an Alzheimer's cure. Will has a personal stake in the experiment, having watched his father (John Lithgow) lose hold of a once-fine mind. When mishaps lead to a slash in funding and a front-office order to euthanize the remaining apes, Will smuggles home a baby chimp prodigy to raise as his own while continuing his forbidden experiments on the adopted monkey and dad.
Will calls his new charge Caesar. Apes fans will recognize this as the name of the insurrectionist chimp in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the fourth film in the original cycle, which concerned a slave rebellion of pet primates in a futuristic 1991 that resembles a college campus built in the '60s. Roddy McDowall played that Caesar with intelligence and sensitivity, disguising his noble birth while scraping before humans, all this from behind something one step up from a dimestore mask. The effects have become significantly more expensive since the '70s Apes; as Caesar, surrounded by humans, grows into a sullen and preternaturally intelligent teenager in Rise, his developing alienation is registered in the motion-captured expressions of Andy Serkis of Gollum and King Kong fame (the Lon Chaney Sr. of CGI).
When Caesar runs amok in the neighborhood, touching on uncomfortable memories of Stamford, CT's Travis the chimpanzee, the court separates him from Will, locking the ape away with his own kind in a "Primate Sanctuary" that's essentially a monkey-house gulag. Here Caesar plots his escape and, with a developing species consciousness, devises a program of ape solidarity, while Rise becomes a very effective self-contained jailhouse drama, replete with nemesis guard (Tom Felton), prison yard bully ("Rocket"), and the wise old lifer ("Maurice"), a shaggy, melancholy baboon. (Director Wyatt's previous film, 2008's The Escapist, was, incidentally, a prison-break picture.)
None of the human plotlines rival Caesar's — not the perfunctory romantic teaming of Franco and Freida Pinto, nor the ongoing corporate chicanery at Gen-Sys, laying sequel groundwork. As tight as the parallel Homo sapiens storylines are lax, Caesar's prison conversion to charismatic pan-ape revolutionist is near-silent filmmaking, with simple and precise images illustrating his General-like divining of personalities and his organization of a group from chaos to order. All of this is shown in absorbing, propulsive style, as Caesar bides his time like a king in disguise awaiting restoration.
In the decade since Sam Raimi's Spider-Man, effects filmmaking has obsessively pursued weightless, unchained movement. In Apes, the frame is pulled along by the tumbling, freestyle progress of monkeys in motion, first through a jungle prologue, then the Rodman house, the sanctuary corridors and, finally, in the awesome, tactically organized chaos of the climax along the undergirding of the Golden Gate Bridge. Caesar's cell-block putsch complete, he leads his ape army into Frisco, and from here Rise descends into pitched street warfare between mechanized man and monkey.
At this point we've spent so much time with Caesar that our identification with the primate is complete, and the ensuing orgy of destruction is played more for a vicarious rush than horror. Some fantastic images follow: a tree-lined suburban street showered with leaves as an invisible army swings through the canopy; a zoo breakout, with apes repurposing wrought-iron fence spikes as spears; the age-old rivalry between gorilla and helicopter. The final shot denotes the ambitions of the apes and 20th Century Fox, respectively: empire, and franchise.