The film follows geneticist Will Rodman (James Franco: Your Highness) as he seeks a cure for Alzheimer’s, an affliction rotting away his father (John Lithgow: Leap Year). His latest serum is promising, until his test subject Bright Eyes throws a violent fit and is put down. Turns out Bright Eyes was protecting her newborn, Caesar.
Will takes Caesar home, where he discovers the simian may have inherited his mother’s enhanced brain. Encouraged, he raises his precocious chimp as a child and starts giving his father stolen doses of his wonder drug.
By three, Caesar is signing, using the potty and swinging around the house like a big boy. However, Caesar realizes he’s not like the other kids on the block. He can’t go outside to play. When he goes to the park, he has to wear a collar and a leash. And everyone he encounters seems afraid of him.
When Caesar has his own fit of pique, he discovers just how few rights a chimp has in this world. So he starts a revolution.
Director Rupert Wyatt (The Escapist) brilliantly combines two themes — a coming-of-age movie and a prison-break saga — to create a compelling tale of an ape who dreams of freedom. The movie outlines the thoughtless cruelty and pain humans inflict on animals without vilifying us as a race.
Humans, as it turns out, are Wyatt’s inconveniences; he has little time to spend developing the characters of the apes’ oppressors. While ostensibly the lead, Franco’s character is as inconsequential as he is innocuous. Lion of British cinema Brian Cox (The Veteran) gets little more than a cameo as an uncaring head of an ape sanctuary. Why bother casting A-list names for roles that could have been handled by lesser actors?
It’s all part of Wyatt’s strategy.
This movie, you see, isn’t about humanity or its struggle for supremacy. It’s about a young chimp who decides to fight against injustice. By developing Caesar’s character as fully as he does, Wyatt makes him the most human member of the cast. We know Caesar, and we root for him.
Though unrecognizable due to the wonders of CGI, Serkis is key to making the film work. A veteran of Peter Jackson’s King Kong and Lord of the Rings films, Serkis is a master of communicating human emotions through effects. Serkis transitions Caesar from the wonder of youth to the angst of adolescence to the resolve of adulthood without ever reminding us that the precocious ape is played by a man. His commitment to the part is worth the price of admission.
Though the movie is a departure from the mythos of the first three films, it honors the trilogy’s memory with sly and overt references. Its only misstep is allowing another character to tell Caesar, “Take your hands of me you damn, dirty ape!” That line belongs to Charlton Heston, no matter how good your reboot is.