Criticize Tim Burton's Planet of the Apes remake for being lackluster by comparison to the 1968 original all you want -- at least he "got" what screenwriters Rod Serling and Michael Wilson had to say about man's inhumanity while translating Pierre Boulle's novel to the big screen. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, on the other hand, is little more than a flaccid showcase for special effects that, while breathtaking in bursts, are often much less impressive than the filmmakers believe them to be. Meanwhile, the human drama isn't nearly as engrossing as the simian drama despite the best efforts of stars James Franco and John Lithgow, and the screenplay takes far too long getting to the show-stopping climax atop the Golden Gate Bridge, which feels too restrained to muster any real sense of excitement.
Ambitious, hotshot scientist Will Rodman (Franco) has developed a revolutionary serum to cure Alzheimer's disease, the degenerative affliction that is slowly eating away at his father, Charles (Lithgow). Will is pitching the drug to a team of high-powered investors when his primary test subject, a chimp named Bright Eyes, goes on a violent rampage. As a result, the program is shut down, and the test subjects are ordered to be euthanized. What no one realized until after the fact, though, is that Bright Eyes had quietly given birth to a baby chimp in her cage, and that it was her motherly instinct that caused her to lash out. Quietly sneaking the newborn home to avoid putting it down, Will names him Caesar and realizes that the serum has been passed from mother to son. Soon, Caesar is showing signs of extraordinary intelligence. Meanwhile, Will uses his father as his first human test subject, and the results are astonishing. But when Charles regresses and Caesar fights to defend him, the highly intelligent chimp is shipped to a wildlife rescue center run by the corrupt John Landon (Brian Cox) and his sadistic son, Dodge (Tom Felton), who abuses and humiliates the anthropoids at every opportunity. Later, just as Will convinces his boss that the time is right to continue the test trials, Caesar breaks out of the lab, steals some gaseous samples of the drug, and uses them to create an army of enlightened apes that will challenge humankind for world domination.
Nearly 50 years after the original Planet of the Apes launched one of the biggest film franchises of all time, Hollywood is still attempting to milk it for every last penny. And who can blame them? Not only was the film exciting and original, but it represented the very best of science fiction tradition by addressing a very human subject matter in a fantasy setting -- allowing audiences to focus on the message and ideas without being distracted by the contextual specifics. Given that Rise of the Planet of the Apes is an "origins" tale, it's only natural that the action takes place in a contemporary setting; sadly, screenwriters Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver simply don't possess the illuminating human insight or creativity to make the message transcend the familiar terrain. There are most certainly interesting concepts floating around in their script (such as the fact that the revolutionary drug has a devastating viral effect on humans) and some fun references to the original series (like a newspaper headline concerning a potentially tragic Mars mission), but none of them really go anywhere or serve any real purpose in advancing the threadbare main plotline. Attempts at displaying man's inhumanity by showing Dodge's mistreatment of the apes are essentially the only effort to make any kind of social commentary, and come off as little more than halfhearted echoes of scenes from the original series.
The one thing Rise of the Planet of the Apes has going for it is the one actor we never truly see -- Andy Serkis. One of the most talented "virtual" actors of his generation (he brought Gollum to life in the Lord of the Rings films and gave King Kong real heart in Peter Jackson's imposing remake), Serkis expresses Caesar's emotions and thought processes in a way that allows us to truly connect with the character. If only his main scenes didn't come after the downright cartoonish CG animation in the first third of the film, perhaps the character would have resonated more effectively in the poignant climax. Meanwhile, talented stars Franco, Lithgow, and Cox feel somewhat constrained by the screenplay's dramatic shortcomings and pedestrian direction.
By the time the original Planet of the Apes yielded its third sequel, 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the tone of the series had grown increasingly dark -- to the point where the violent climax of that film was excised in hopes of attaining a G rating (thought it was ultimately released rated PG). One can hardly imagine an Apes film hitting theaters with a G -- or even PG -- rating in this day and age, and given that the concept of Rise rests on simians using sheer numbers and brawn to overcome human firepower, one would expect a certain level of intensity to be on display here. Alas, it is not. And without that intensity or emotional engagement, this Rise instead feels more like a nosedive.