It is a mystery why Twentieth Century Fox took so long to unveil Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which is such a strong summer entry that it might have built up some loud advance buzz. The filmmakers were likely so anxious about the quality of the VFX that they waited until the last minute for improvements. They needn’t have worried. This is not another cynical cookie-cutter sequel or remake.
This prequel reinvents the origin myth of the movies that came before–the 1968 movie adapted from Pierre Boule’s sci-fi novel, followed by 1970’s awful Beneath the Planet of the Apes and the workmanlike 2001 Tim Burton remake. Rise of the Planet of the Apes, made smarter by Avatar‘s DNA, knocks all the other versions out of the water, and will take over the global box office, behind Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 and Transformers: Dark of the Moon, which had 3-D propelling their numbers. No comic book superheroes, robots or magic wizards here. This movie doesn’t need 3-D enhancement: believe me, you’ve never seen anything like these sentient apes–and when they rise up on their hind legs against their oppressors, you actually root for them.
Married producer-writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver’s emotional family drama unfolds deliberately, leading to a big action-packed finale on the Golden Gate Bridge. This is a contemporary Frankenstein myth, about a too-passionate Bay Area scientist (James Franco) who wants to save the world with smart drug AZT-112–and his own father (John Lithgow), riddled with Alzheimer’s–as he raises a smart orphan chimp, Caesar, child of an AZT-injected mother. Needless to say, there are tears before bedtime. The movie taps into some of our, forgive the expression, primal fears. Brit filmmaker Rupert Wyatt (Picture Farm co-founder and IFC’s The Escapist, also starring Brian Cox) delivers edge-of-your-seat bravura filmmaking.
No mistake about it: Caesar (Andy Serkis) is the anti-hero of this movie. And Fox has gotten its money’s worth from the enormous strides made by Weta Digital’s Joe Letteri and James Cameron on Avatar. The movie would not have been possible without Weta’s deep experience with performance capture.
And Andy Serkis, who performed Gollum and King Kong for Peter Jackson and Captain Haddock for him and Steven Spielberg on The Adventures of Tintin, delivers the performance of his career here (see video below). The big change was that Weta was able to use him and the other actors playing apes outside the “volume,” in live locations and sunlight. It makes a difference. You feel these apes–actors in suits and face rigs covered with dots– running together, interacting with each other. When Franco clasps the full-grown Caesar under a redwood tree, he’s hugging Serkis–they are expressing feelings. The full character algorithms and rendering are added later. (Bill Desowitz talks to Serkis, and will dig deeper into the VFX in his Friday column.)
Finally, Fox may be able to advance the argument that Cameron started on Avatar: there are live performers here. While a VFX Oscar nomination is in the bag, Ape‘s genre roots may still prove problematic for the Academy actors’ branch. But this marks a major step toward breaking down long-held biases against mo-cap.
A curious chance for humans to revel in their own destruction, “Rise of the Planet of the Apes” makes for an impressive, if predictably downbeat prequel to a franchise famous for unhappy endings. Thanks to stunning advances in performance capture technology, director Rupert Wyatt successfully ditches the cumbersome makeup appliances of past chapters, building the story around a cast of photoreal CG simians convincing enough to identify with as characters, rather than just special effects. Though markedly better than 2001’s Tim Burton reboot, this apocalyptic entry has a trickier road ahead, relying on positive buzz and sheer spectacle to win over skeptical auds.
This seventh film in the “Planet of the Apes” series rises to such ridiculous heights, it’s impossible not to laugh out loud — in a good way, in appreciation. There’s big, event-movie fun to be had here, amped up by some impressive special effects and typically immersive performance-capture work by Andy Serkis, best known as Gollum from the “Lord of the Rings” films.
The movie is zippier than Tim Burton’s oddly lifeless 2001 Planet of the Apes remake, but unlike good sci-fi, it doesn’t signify anything, or really even try to — it’s just an apes-on-the-rampage creature feature, with a decent setup, a wobbly second act, and a glorified-videogame urban-action-war payoff. The apes, in this case, look realistic if a bit rubbery and are led by one very, very shrewd chimpanzee named Caesar (a nod to the Roddy McDowall character in Conquest of the Planet of the Apes). He’s played, deftly, by Andy Serkis, in a motion-capture performance that turns the actor who was Gollum in the Lord of the Rings films into a scowling-eyed, mostly silent humanoid chimp so slow-burn angry that he’s almost handsome. Think of him as the Daniel Craig of higher primates.
As someone who has spent a fair amount of energy in the past criticizing the idea of prequels and the films of 20th Century Fox, it pains me to say that for the second time this summer, a prequel from Fox is actually a pretty hefty slice of entertainment, smart and soulful in a way I wouldn’t have guessed. “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is entirely different than any other movie in the franchise, and that’s one of its strengths. The film isn’t terribly surprising in terms of where it goes, but it is very clever in how it gets there, and it is driven largely by yet another groundbreaking performance from Andy Serkis, who is nothing less than the first digital age superstar at this point.