Rise of the Planet of the Apes

John Lithgow comforts Andy Serkis, upset upon having lost his temper.Photo: 20th Century Fox
5 StarsWhy I Saw It: Love a story of how things come to be what we’re seeing today, and curious to see the new technology at work.
What I Thought: Dear Academy: I formally call for a special category of achievement first awarded to and named after Andy Serkis. Better yet, take a nod from the film and just nominate’im already!

Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Dir. Rupert Wyatt. Perf. James Franco, Andy Serkis, John Lithgow, Frieda Pinto, Brian Clark, Tom Felton, David Oyelowo, Tyler Labine, Jamie Harris. Twentieth Century Fox, 2011.

How the supremacy shift from humans to apes, portrayed in the 1968 classic Planet of the Apes, originated.

So much is good about this film. Let’s leave the gate with the obvious: the tech. Weta Digital does it again. Once more, a story awaiting its proper telling blossoms before us via Weta’s skill (hey ~ anyone read This Perfect Day??).

Nutshell version: Weta invented the performance capture and visual effects software Peter Jackson needed in order to convey The Lord of the Rings as it should be.  They went on to hone the performance capture abilities and invent new visual effects capacities to help James Cameron tell Avatar, and now they’ve evolved the entirety for Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Jam packed with major award winners, Weta deserves another jam packed round of awards.

See, as glorious as Gollum was ~ is ~ and as perhaps in his glory we never noticed, he never physically interacts with other characters. One might rightfully have assumed such was due to the stench, but actually it was [for utter lack of a better term] a limitation of the technology. In its early iteration (I still can’t believe we’re speaking of it like this), the performance capture technology suited the actor in motion sensors, the actor conducted the performance in front of a green screen, the character’s appearance was laid over the actor’s performance, and the result then finally combined with the live action. It was dazzling.

Now, the sensor-suited actor (hold that thought) is no longer bound to the enclosed set, and can participate in the live action shooting. Think embraces, hand to hand combat, the ability to handle objects in the real enviornment. And speaking of the real environment, the fantasical 3D world of Pandora has been evolved “back” into an astonishing 2D San Francisco. My first thought at the opening frames was, “Holy cow. Who needs 3D.”

Rise is dazzling. See it for the tech if nothing else; even if the content somehow leaves you cold (!?), there’s nothing that will bore or displease, I can assure you. (And for the record, a tech note to studios: This is how movies should be shot ~ forget 3D. You’re turning it into a gimmick, and if you did 2D this way routinely, I’d gladly boost my average ticket by a buck or two.) Weta Digital is a good thing to have in our world.

So still holding that thought? T. and I emerged from the screening with precisely the same thought: “Do you think there’s any way Andy Serkis could possibly be in contention for Best Actor?” I’ll tell you what ~ if not, it’s due only to a bias on the part of the voters. Serkis is genius, and his performances (to the uninitiated, he was Gollum ~ and Kong) have nothing to do with the artists’ renderings that serve as his costume design. These are bona fide performances ~ Qualifying Roles, in fact ~ and he deserves as much attention for his work as anyone else. Full stop.

Next up, then, the story ~ splendidly, wholly believable. Based on events already in evidence… in other words, not only a fabulous prequel, but a cautionary tale. If we’re going down roads like this (and we’ve many legs behind us already), it may serve us well to consider our reach and treat others with more respect along the way. Planet made the point initially, arguably flawed for granting respect based on resemblance to the alpha, but for 1968 it was still a doozy; Rise doesn’t pursue the conversation even as far as Planet did, but it deliberately makes the truer, if tacit, point. (I’ll make the overt one ~ did you know that there is but a single chromosome’s difference between a human and a chimpanzee, and a single chromosome’s difference betweeen a human without Down’s Syndrome and a human with it? Yet unfettered usury of the latter would be an atrocity. Subject for another day, but I’m just sayin’.)

Rise contains many delightful references to Planet ~ I won’t spoil them here, but keep your eyes open for some delightful dialogue. The casting is excellent; Franco’s “sensitive intellectual” natural demeanor perfectly suits our scientist, and it’s easy to believe Lithgow actually suffers from Alzheimer’s (no surprise there, but it’s still impressive). It’s also good to see Tom Felton working outside Potter (Career Goal #2: play a sweetheart). Brian Cox just had to show up, and it’s good that he did; Frieda Pinto wasn’t asked anything either, and while bringing nothing special to the role, she’s fine (having seen her three times now, I’m starting to think that she’s essentially a pretty face, but she acts well enough that this doesn’t count against her).

And were it all not enough, Rise contains blissful shock and surprise (a single 8 seconds contains an unparalleled one-two punch), heroism, award-worthy effects in totality, and spectacular action sequences not only for execution but also for planning and creativity.

Arrange your schedule. This one’s destined for Desert Island.

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