It’s a rare film that’s marketed to look dumber than it actually is. This is the case with Rise of the Planet of the Apes, a movie whose trailer contained nothing more than James Franco and riotous monkeys, a grievous understatement of what the film is actually about. Perhaps Hollywood deemed the material too heavy-handed, or decided that a film starring human-like animals wouldn’t perform well at the box office. Either way, the posters and trailers for this movie do little to emphasize its intelligent relationships, emotional resonance, and smart use of technology. As hard as the Hollywood tries to convince you, this is no Transformers; it’s much, much better.
Throughout much of the film, we follow Caesar (Andy Serkis), an ape rescued as a baby from a testing lab and raised by Will Rodman (James Franco). Caesar has, as a result of genetically engineered virus, vastly increased intelligence. We see him growing in the Rodman household, solving puzzles, communicating with Will, and joyously swinging around the household. There’s no doubt that Caesar is the focus here, despite big names such as Franco and John Lithgow appearing in the film. Much of the time onscreen is spent exploring the emotions of this ape. Yes, an ape is the star of this movie, and his story rings surprisingly true. It’s one of the outsider, the loner who never found, or was denied, a place in society. The archetype has been explored many times, but never has an animal, much less a digitally created one, been so intriguing and accessible to audiences. In fact, the last digitally created creature that was as interesting as Caesar was Gollum from The Lord of the Rings, also played by Serkis. He’s truly a master of the motion capture, a man whose face is rarely seen in films, but whose performances are enjoyed by millions. It’s not an exaggeration to say that Serkis steals the show here. His portrayal of Caesar contains more depth and emotion than any of the other actors in the film, and he does all of this without any verbal communication. The spoken word is a powerful medium, but, even without this, Serkis creates a powerful performance through subtle gestures, such as a furrowed eyebrow or a delicate touch.
The ability to truly capture Andy Serkis’ performance is a testament to the advancement of technology within the last decade. Weta Digital, the team behind The Lord of the Rings and Avatar, struck digital gold once again. I’ve read that the motion capture technology has evolved to the point that they can do all of the shooting on location, whereas before, every motion capture shot was done in a studio in front of a green screen. This allows for more accurate filmmaking, and that difference is apparent in Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The apes look spectacular, yet they sometimes cross over into the uncanny valley, a place where non-quite-human replicas cause discomfort among viewers. Some of the digitally created apes can look too realistic, taking on an unnatural state to the audience. This isn’t always the case, and with the genuinely believable performance by Serkis, is rarely so. It’s refreshing to see visual effects used for more than brainless entertainment, as has been the case with many of the movies released this summer. Special effects were created as a way to draw the reader into the story, not alienate him with emotionless action. Besides from a few unnecessary scenes near the end of the film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes gets this just right.
I walked into Rise of the Planet of the Apes feeling a little apprehensive and skeptical, but I left feeling entertained. The film has the right blend of storytelling and technology, which they use to compliment and challenge each other. The film would fall apart without either, but with both becomes one of the better movies I’ve seen this summer.