Movie magic takes a giant leap in Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes as a group of digital apes give fully realised performances that outclass their human counterparts.
I suppose I always assumed that in summer blockbusters, humans, either actors or characters, were of minor significance compared to spaceships, aliens or other special effects. So it was a greatly intriguing experience to watch Fox’s Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes recently and witness digital apes act the socks off the not untalented actors on screen.
Of course, these actors – James Franco, Frieda Pinto, Brian Cox, John Lithgow, Tom Felton and others – don’t have much to work with here. Pinto looks pretty but barely says a word. Cox and Lithgow bring gravity to the situation in stock character parts. Franco is even more wooden than he was as an Oscar host, playing the chief human in the story. Actually the most mono-dimensional of all is Britain’s David Oyelowo playing the ruthless boss of the research lab. Hindered by the glib dialogue he is forced to spout, Oyelowo is little more than a cartoon of corporate arrogance and greed.
But forget the under-characterised humans. This film, which is one of the summer’s most enjoyable, is not about humans. This is about apes.
In the middle stretch of the film, the lead ape character Caesar is imprisoned with a bunch of other apes in a primate sanctuary and mercifully the humans exit the picture for long stretches. This is when the film comes alive and director Rupert Wyatt gets stuck into a prison break scenario, as Caesar gradually wins over the different primate factions. The drama is wordless (very occasionally subtitled) and is superbly conveyed by facial and body expression. Wyatt of course made his name with the UK prison break thriller The Escapist and he’s got a gift for it.
Thanks to the effects wizards at WETA Digital and the performances of real actors as the apes captured by the same motion capture technique used in King Kong and Avatar, the characters come alive and the drama is mesmerizing. Best of all is Andy Serkis as Caesar, a performance which is truly ground-breaking. We have seen Serkis before as Gollum and King Kong, but Caesar is the chief protagonist in this film and the audience has to care for him and root for him more than for Franco’s benevolent scientist or the other humans. The power of Serkis is to bring sensitivity, dignity and, yes, humanity to this character, without words (although by the film’s end, he has uttered four). Jean Dujardin achieves similar cinematic brilliance in the silent movie The Artist which won him the best actor award at Cannes this year, but he didn’t have a digital ape visage clouding his features.
Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes takes movie magic to the next level, and humans – a not unimpressive range of actors – are mere props to the digital apes. How long before we have live action movies with digital actors that are as moving and meaningful as the toys, rats, robots or cars in the Pixar movies? Not long, apparently.
As for Serkis, could someone give that man an Oscar? He has never been considered eligible for his digital performances before but how different is this performance from previous work in heavy makeup like John Hurt in The Elephant Man or Brad Pitt in Benjamin Button?
This is acting at the highest level.