Frequently, films of the big budget sort have issues because the men with money don’t respect the filmmaking process. When building a skyscraper you don’t rush it to completion – otherwise you get catastrophic results. The same goes for visual storytelling, in which character development will never happen if you don’t allot the appropriate amount of time to build a connection with the audience. Rise of the Planet of the Apes respects this, which is why it’s the surprise blockbuster hit of the summer. Forget Thor or even the decent Captain America, this film may even be better than Harry Potter 7 Pt 2. Not bad for a bunch of damn dirty apes.
If you’ve never seen a Planet of the Apes film, don’t fret, Rise stands comfortably as a standalone piece. Starting from scratch, James Franco is introduced as gene therapy scientist Will Rodman. He has allied himself with Gen Sys, a pharmaceutical company of questionable moral character, in order to chase a cure for Alzheimer’s. After an incident puts a draft of his wonderdrug on hold, Rodman finds himself the proud new father of a bouncing baby chimpanzee, dubbed Caeser by his father Charles (John Lithgow). Dosed with the experimental drug, Caesar’s intellect and personality reveal the therapy’s true potential. Cultures clash as Caesar’s maturation not only makes him stronger, but anxious to be free of Will’s leash.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes spends an incredible amount of quality time constructing Caesar, a completely CGI entity, as the film’s main character (out of the way, Franco). From his time as a baby ape swinging through the home-constructed jungle gym, to his eventual imprisonment at an ape sanctuary, the time we spend with Caesar and his adoptive family turns this Pinocchio into a real boy.
The computer effects are a true wonder, providing a nuance to Caesar that invites you to believe you’re observing a chimp and not a digital monster (the long wild digital tracking shots as Caesar scales obstacles are a surprising thrill). Credit goes to Weta, the effects team behind Lord of the Rings and District 9, for the realistic CGI, but also for allowing Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar to shine through the tech. Serkis has made a career as the man behind the digital mask, from LOTR‘s Gollum to the big ape in King Kong. Squint hard enough at Gollum and you’ll see Serkis’ face, but Rise of the Planet of the Apes marks the first time that Serkis is clear as day: eye movements, facial muscle ticks, all are on display thanks to an incredible leap in motion capture technology (watch a featurette on Weta and Serkis’ work here). Serkis isn’t inserted later into the film but is actually on set to interact with cast, covered in green dots to capture his movements. Having a living human being on set, later digitally clothed in ape flesh, makes an incredible, subtle difference in the performances from Serkis and co-stars alike. As an antagonist of CGI, I was beside myself upon experiencing the caliber of Weta’s craftsmanship. Despite using an abundance of technology to bring the apes to life, it’s apparent the team uses as many practical (real) effects as possible, which, when coupled with a focus on character, is special effect gold.
It also draws attention to the brave new world of CGI performances that will continue to flood our multiplexes. Would Andy Serkis be eligible for an Oscar? How would the Academy distinguish where Serkis’ performance ends and the SFX begins? Chris Evans’ face was digitally grafted to a small man’s body in this summer’s Captain America–who gets credit for that performance? There’s obvious talent between both special effect team and the actor involved, but who gets the glory remains to be seen.
Rise of the Planet of the Apes has the heart of an independent film in that it never loses focus on its characters for the sake of mass-market appeal. It is way better than it has any right to be, as a film about CGI apes, but the thing will cast a spell on you. Even the climactic battle showcased in the many promotions of the film may have some wondering how apes could overwhelm men with guns, but seeing the simian plan makes it plausible enough to satisfy the skeptical. I kept waiting for the moment the film would take its inevitable misstep, but from beginning to end, even through an interesting credit sequence (a clever little epilogue), this is a well crafted machine.
Leading up to summer all any film critic could do was bemoan the superhero slaughter we were about to witness, a man in tights hitting screens almost every other week. Superheroes didn’t win this summer – the apes did.