Neither a franchise killer like Tim Burton's highly misguided 'Planet' remake a decade ago, nor an effective re-launcher along the lines of either "Casino Royale" or "Star Trek" which gave new life to two other 60's-born franchises, 'Rise' hovers somewhere in that awkward middle space. The premise is downbeat, the narrative follows well-trodden sci-fi staples, and the performances vary between the serviceable and the silly with one notable exception.
Yet 'Apes' manages to overcome quite a few of its hurdles due to its impressive simian creations and an emphasis on telling an emotional story about characters rather than the mashing together of a cluster of set pieces around a concept. There's some ambitious and clever stuff going on here that could've really soared, except it has been cut down by some awkward choices, economic limitations, and a mostly wasted group of human actors fluttering around who constantly interrupt.
Despite a few odes to the original film series, this isn't an awkward prequel/sequel - it's a straight up reboot. On paper the concept sounds similar to the fourth film "Conquest of the Planet of the Apes" although there are far more differences than fans are expecting. This 'Apes' certainly isn't as bleak, on screen it's almost a PG film with little actual violence and very little death. Even the mistreatment of the apes is more about confinement than cruelty aside from Tom Felton's little sadist character who threatens to derail the picture once or twice.
The script by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver isn't of much help. James Franco, neither at his dedicated best but nor at his disengaged worst, is a scientist experimenting with an Alzheimer's cure on chimps - in the process making Caesar, the highly intelligent newborn child of a failed test subject. It's been done, everything from "Deep Blue Sea" all the way back to "Frankenstein" have milked the theme of man playing God and reaping the destruction that comes from his creation which is often a walking metaphor for his own greed, ambition and overzealousness.
Director Rupert Wyatt however makes the smart choice of keeping much of the narrative's focused on Caesar and his character's path. Said arc is akin to various historical biopics about freedom fighters rebelling against a draconian system. We see him grow up aware that he is different from those around him, how his misunderstanding of the world and societal norms leads him to a period of forced imprisonment with his own kind, and how he's hardened into becoming a being who fights for what he believes in - which is ultimately freedom.
By opting for that angle over that of an ape bent on world domination or conquest, it makes the character's motives understandable and his methods bordering on the justifiable, plus it throws in thinly veiled metaphors of both growing up and the oppression of any minority group - which is what true science fiction is all about. Helping the film to sell it though is both actor Andy Serkis and the WETA visual effects team who combine to bring Caesar to life as not just a character but as a compelling performance as well.
Enough praise simply can't be heaped upon both Serkis and the FX house who take a character with almost no real dialogue and yet are able to convey a lot through facial expression and body language. The animation is excellent but not flawless, at times astonishingly real and at others decidedly computer animated, yet it's always able to convey emotion and expression throughout.
It's a shame that in comparison the humans are decidedly underwritten characterisations which a decent cast can do little with. Freida Pinto ("Slumdog Millionaire") is a lovely looking young woman but her veterinary love interest character is so sidelined as to be entirely useless, the same with the great Brian Cox as the bureaucratic man in charge of an animal holding pen.
There's a couple of solid genre TV actors like David Hewlett ("Stargate Atlantis") and Tyler Labine ("Reaper") who have a knack for comedy, yet both are stuck in small bit parts as a cranky neighbour and fellow scientist whose only real contribution is to a very minor subplot setting up another part of the 'Apes' mythology for any inevitable sequel. John Lithgow, as Franco's Alzheimer-afflicted father, is probably the one human character who comes out of this with a pass despite having limited screen time. Yet it's a typical Lithgow-style role which you'll either love or hate.
David Oyelowo ("Spooks") and Tom Felton ("Harry Potter") as the results-driven big pharma boss and the abusive teen intern at the holding facility are hammy villains of the first order. Oyelowo initially keeps it under control but by the end is almost ludicrously chewing on scenery, while Felton from square one overplays it far past the point that he should've been reigned in by Wyatt.
Indeed for all the great little moments Wyatt inserts, other choices are simply baffling. To show the passage of time Wyatt executes a superb sequence of Caesar climbing through a forest of giant redwoods, while another sequence of apes swinging through a suburban street adds a nice touch of menace for what it doesn't show (even if it slightly recalls "The Happening").
On the flip side the inclusion of a character saying a famous line from the classic 60's film is not only so poor delivered as to be laughable, but it interrupts a great big character moment that comes immediately afterwards. There's a few plot holes strewn throughout from the way Franco's workplace has little security and seems to keep him employed despite nearly a decade of unproductive work, to the way a few dozen intelligent chimps suddenly become a lot more by the end - including the way the strays they pick up seem to become as hyper-intelligent but without the medication.
The action is also fairly routine. With much of the money poured into the chimp effects, there's limits on the rest of the film which varies between forest locations that seem more Vancouver than San Francisco, and the big human vs. apes set piece seen in the trailers. Some shots are nicely done, especially the sight of the apes running up a hill looking down on San Fran, and later a bunch of them swinging through the girders of the Golden Gate Bridge. Yet the actual action is brief, the apes employ a little bit of basic strategy but do little more than startle a few traffic cops and have fun with a helicopter before it all comes to an end.
When the focus is kept on Caesar's story and his relationships it works, despite the familiarity of the framing device to tell it. It's vaguely plausible albeit not helped by some obvious scripting deficits and more than few moments that err heavily on the cheese in an otherwise dourly serious film. While the titular apes themselves are sometimes more animated than animal, emotionally they're convincing enough characters which is the most important factor. In fact the simians themselves are so impressive you can't help but wish the rest of the film around it was up to that standard. It's not, which renders this a strong little cult film rather than the epic sci-fi saga launchpad it could have been.