There have been certain movies since the inception of digital effects that stand out for their use of new technology to assist the storytelling. Jurassic Park made us believe in dinosaurs. So much of The Lord of the Rings films hinged on Gollum, a CG performance-captured character. Avatar created an incredibly lush and dense alien world, populated with bizarre, photo-realistic creatures. In 2011, Rupert Wyatt’s cumbersomely titled Rise of the Planet of the Apes represents the next leap forward in cinema effects. There is a human story here, but Wyatt wisely leaves it more or less in the background. and focuses the film on its strongest element: Andy Serkis as Caesar.
Rise builds audience sympathy for the ape characters right from the opening scene. Make no mistake, what happens later on in the story is our fault, the end product of insatiable human greed. The events of the film progress in a fairly by the numbers fashion, and anyone familiar at all with the Apes series knows where it’s going, yet Wyatt and Serkis manage to surprise by crafting easily the most interesting and developed character of the blockbuster season, and arguably the entire year thus far. This film is all Caesar’s, and the work done by Serkis and the wizards at Weta is truly remarkable. It was a risky proposition to make Caesar a completely CG character; if the effect didn’t work, the whole film wouldn’t work. Building on what they had done previously in The Lord of the Rings and King Kong, Weta and Serkis achieve what was thought by some impossible, making Caesar and the other apes 100 percent believable, not just in look, but in emotion. Wyatt, fearlessly inviting close scrutiny of the digital characters, focuses a great deal on the eyes of the apes, and when Caesar looks at James Franco or John Lithgow, you really feel the connection between them. When the Oscar nominations are announced in January, is it possible that Serkis will get a nod for supporting actor? Probably not, but the strength of his performance is sure to spark debate about the legitimacy of performance-captured animated characters. More so than Rings or Avatar, Rise really shows what the technology is capable of, and it seems that the uncanny valley is ever so much closer to being bridged. Whether or not Weta can work their magic on a human character remains to be seen, but the potential is definitely there, and it’s exciting. As for the real human characters, Lithgow stands out as always, but Franco, Freida Pinto, and particularly Tom Felton as a sadistic ape handler deliver fairly forgettable performances. They do what they have to do, but Wyatt knows where the film needs to spend its time, and their story never gets in the way of Caesar’s journey from adorable orphan to calculating revolutionary. It’s a shame that 20th Century Fox’s marketing department felt it necessary to alter the film’s title, as the original title Caesar is much more appropriate.
Technical achievements aside, Rise is also a surprisingly effective summer action film. Whereas the majority of reboots/remakes come off as a little unnecessary, Wyatt and writers Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver really seem like they have something to say, and the climax of the film left me quite genuinely conflicted in my morals. The subtext of the film asks some big questions about genetic engineering and animal rights, and what our response should be to protect ourselves from nature’s fury. Obviously the events in the film are pushed to an extreme level, but the human response seems rather realistic, and it’s not something we should be proud of.
This is how franchise filmmaking should be done. Using outstanding technical mastery to tell a challenging and exciting story, Rise of the Planet of the Apes ends blockbuster season on a high note, and sets a solid foundation for further stories in this universe. The Apes series seemed dead in the water after Tim Burton’s awful 2001 remake, but Rupert Wyatt and his team have reinvigorated it into something relevant, topical and thrilling.