In San Francisco, a chemist named William Rodman (James Franco) is searching for a cure for his father’s Alzheimer’s by testing a drug called ALZ-112 on chimpanzees at the biotech company Gen-Sys. A chimp named Bright Eyes shows greatly increased intelligence but goes on a violent rampage and is shot to death. The project is terminated and the chimps euthanized. But Will’s assistant Robert Franklin (Tyler Labine) knows that Bright Eyes had recently given birth to an infant they call Caesar (Andy Serkis), who has inherited his mother’s intelligence, and William decides to raise him.
Five years later, Caesar learns of his origins from William. William’s father Charles (John Lithgow) has been improving but is now resistant to ALZ-112. Caesar injures a hot-headed neighbor named Douglas Hunziker (David Hewlett) while defending the old man. He is taken away to an animal shelter. Caesar is tormented by the Alpha Chimp Rocket (Terry Notary) and the sadistic head of the guards Dodge Landon (Tom Felton) but is befriended by a circus orangutan named Maurice (Karin Konoval), who also knows sign language. Backed up by a gorilla named Buck (Richard Ridings), Caesar challenges Rocket. William offers his father a stronger ALZ-113, but he refuses and dies.
William tests it on a Bonobo named Koba (Christopher Gordon) and some test humans are killed by it. Caesar steals the drug and increases the intelligence of other apes. Tom Felton (of the Harry Potter movies) gets a satisfying comeuppance. Caesar is now able to speak. The apes escape and free other apes. They battle their way across the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to escape to the Redwood Forest. William steals a police car and warns Caesar that the humans will hunt him down. The apes disappear into the forest. The pandemic started by ALZ-113 begins to spread through the human population with deadly results.
The film, first of a widely admired trilogy, was directed by Rupert Wyatt, produced and written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, based on the same novel by Pierre Boulle that inspired Planet of the Apes in 1968. It was a commercial and critical success, nominated for an Oscar and five Saturn Awards, of which it won two. Most of the praise and awards were for Andy Serkis in his performance capture for Caesar. Lots of actors can play royalty, a superhero, a criminal, or something else they’re not, but few can play a non-human so perfectly that we forget they’re human at all. The two most brilliant, to my mind, are Doug Jones and Andy Serkis. It was performance capture that allowed the production to create apes so much more realistic than the usual people in costumes. Before this, motion capture could only be performed in studio, but this film took it on location. The first half of the movie is deeply emotional, the second half powerful and exciting.
The driving music was by Patrick Doyle, containing an African American chorus, abundant percussion, and the low notes of an orchestra. Caesar’s speech was a mixture of Any Serkis’s voice and the sound of real chimps. Charlton Heston appeared in three of the original Apes movies, in Tim Burton’s remake, and here as Michelangelo in The Agony and the Ecstasy on a TV in the background. Caesar’s mother Bright Eyes is named after Doctor Zira’s name for Taylor in the original movie. Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, husband and wife, had the help of their children in writing the script. When the apes are escaping by climbing a cage similar to the one in the original movie, they take the form of the DNA molecule. At one point, Caesar is building a model of the Statue of Liberty.