Before I get into the meat of this review, I should admit some bias and baggage I took into the theater with me, which you should keep in mind when applying my review.
First, I don't like what I call "horse movies", in which an animal is the focus of the plot (and usually has the movie named after it) and audiences are expected to emotionally invest in the fate of this animal in the same way we would for human characters. I like animals (a dog person myself, my wife prefers cats) and believe that part of our role as stewards of God's creation is to safeguard and care for them when possible and reasonable, given our other responsibilities as humans. But I do believe that animals do not have value or rights equal to humans and that humans are much more than simply the most intelligent creatures on the planet. So I become a little annoyed when I feel as though a movie is asking me to accept a different view of animals and humans in order to suspend my disbelief and enjoy a movie.
I'm also not a fan of CGI characters getting equal or greater screen time in live action movies compared to flesh and blood actors. For whatever reason, I'm cursed with a good eye for CGI characters (such as Clu/Flynn in Tron: Legacy, or the blue aliens in Avatar) and they take me out of a movie pretty easily, distracting me with thoughts of actors staring at ping-pong balls.
This movie had some of both issues working against it for me, but I can still say that I enjoyed it and many others may enjoy it even more.
Franco plays Will Rodman, a scientist whose father is suffering from Alzheimer's, which Will hopes to cure with an engineered virus that repairs brain functions. During testing on apes, however, the treatment actually enhances existing brain function enormously, giving one ape an intellect that far surpasses the average human of the same age. Due to complications, human testing is prohibited, but Rodman continues to do research with, and secretly keeps, the intelligent ape, whom his father names Caesar.
As time passes, Caesar gains awareness of his status: More than a pet yet held in captivity, subject to human rule. And though Rodman treats him well, others are abusive and cruel. Caesar naturally wishes to be free, which propels the rest of the movie forward.
Performances by the flesh and blood cast are great. Franco is sympathetic, and the storyline with his father, played with fragility by John Lithgow, gives much appreciated emotional depth to the story. The CGI characters (the apes) are admittedly some of the best looking I've ever seen. Hair is extremely challenging to pull off, but the texture mapping on these effects is many times indistinguishable from the real thing. As usual, the flaws show up in facial movements. A flaw that might have been hidden had the filmmakers not decided to give Caesar so many uniquely human expressions, subtle though they were.
Although this is definitely a sci-fi flick, don't go expecting much action. While it does have some intense action sequences, this is more of a sci-fi drama, depending on the emotional plight of characters to move the story forward, rather than a series of life-threatening obstacles. As a drama, it works best when focusing on the human characters, and slows down just a little too much in the second half as the focus turns to the Apes.
I think sci-fi movies dealing with "hyper-evolution" or artificial intelligence that becomes "self-aware" are potentially ripe for meaningful discussion afterward, and this movie is a great example of that.
What makes us human, or "people"? Is it our level of intelligence? Are we simply biological machines with enough processing power to attain the self-described status of "person"? Could apes become "people" simply by making them more intelligent?
I can't be sure where the writers of this movie fall, but I would guess they might say "yes", as would those adhering to a purely naturalistic worldview. Whatever the writers' stance, I would argue for "no" and would also love to see fiction deal with this issue in a less predictable way.
It's common in fiction for "self-aware" machines to be devoid of morality and simply use their superior intelligence to survive and take over the world. (The Terminator franchise being one example.) But I'd love to see a super-intelligent animal who is not also given the traits of philosophical introspection and moral awareness that this script gives to Caesar.(Implying these traits naturally come along with intelligence, which I don't believe is the case.) I think the result would be much more imaginative and lead to far less predictable places than this movie did.
Despite having some predictable plot points and a few slower moments, this was still an enjoyable, though-provoking movie. And I suspect a sequel, if made, will be twice as good!
Rated PG-13 for violence, terror, some sexuality and brief strong language.
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