Andy Serkis should be the inaugural recipient of a new Academy Award for Best Motion Capture Actor. It is an art, what he does. It transcends physical acting and exists in a realm that is primarily virtual. He can never wear proper clothes in front of the camera; he is always fitted with numerous coloured dots and gadgets that transmit his movements directly to the computer, and then experts convert his data into tangible, believable creatures. A certain honour must be given to actors who are selfless enough to allow computer graphics to override their own faces, obscuring their identities.
You will recall Serkis creating Gollum for Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings movies, a character so scrawny, so undernourished and cadaverous that you wondered where all of Serkis’ meat went. Gollum paved the way for motion capture characters. Dobby the elf, from the Harry Potter movies, soon followed. And then James Cameron blew the lid off the digital roof with the tall blue people from his 2009 visual masterpiece Avatar. But it was Gollum who started it all. He was the first fully formed, fully functional simulated character based entirely around a human being.
Now Serkis returns to his forte with Caesar, a chimpanzee initially meant for medical tests but later rebels against the human race and leads an army of super smart apes to a better life. Caesar is so believable as a chimpanzee that he evokes an unexpected emotional response from his audience. He is a chimp, an animal of the mammal family, and yet he is like a human being (this is a thin comparison; chimpanzees, in reality, resemble humans in many ways, socially and emotionally). He does not speak in words, but in a primitive form of sign language, taught to him in his youthful days by Dr. Will Rodman (James Franco), a medical scientist hell bent on finding a cure for Alzheimer’s.
Will works for a company called Gen-Sys, an organisation that functions very much like other villainous Hollywood organisations — its CEO, Steven Jacobs (David Oyelowo), lives and breathes money, and the chimps and Will’s research are the escalators that will get him there.
Will discovers a new compound, ALZ 112, that reproduces dead brain cells, regenerates dead tissue and forms new bonds within the brain. It can cure just about any brain-related illness, he boasts. He tests it on his chimps, on Caesar, whose intelligence grows exponentially — it doesn’t take long for him to master chess.
As luck would have it, Will has a father suffering from Alzheimer’s (John Lithgow). He becomes Will’s human trial. It works, but only momentarily, and then it breaks down and has some nasty side effects. Will’s father exists, it would seem, only for this purpose, and nothing more.
There are some nefarious schemes involving Will and his boss Steven that set events into action, but once they kick off properly the movie revs into top gear. Like I said earlier, Caesar becomes a full-fledged character. He is not like Milo from The Mask; he is as close to a human character as a human can be without actually being human. If that made sense. There is an interlude in an ape sanctuary that carefully monitors Caesar’s progress up the primate hierarchy. The sanctuary is not really a sanctuary at all, but a torturous prison where the guards saunter around with large tasers and fire hoses, and the inmates watch intently from behind the cell gates, knowing perfectly well that all it takes is a little slip up and they’ll be free. Some of Planet’s best moments come from this sanctuary, a setting that sees the arrival of a subservient pet and the escape of a well-respected leader.
It is amazing what CGI can accomplish these days. It is an omnipresent force in American cinema, which means you’ll have to look deep and hard to find movies that utilise it sparingly and respectfully. Sometimes you will come across one that does, but it is so elegantly infused into the story that we miss it, like the effects in Inception. Planet cannot exist without CGI. Without it, there’d be no Caesar. Andy Serkis would be jumping around in a leotard and many viewers would leave feeling violated. But look at how the CGI is employed. Observe Caesar’s movements, the look in his eyes. Observe the way he carries himself and presents himself to his fellow apes. It is unsettling how real he is, how… like us he is. The CGI has a substantial narrative purpose here.
It is only customary in movies like this that the human characters take a back seat. Both Will and Steven are one-dimensional cutouts. They exist to serve the plot, which requires human characters to act as a counterweight to the very many grunting and groaning apes. There is also Will’s girlfriend Caroline (Freida Pinto), who bills herself as a chimp expert but is really just a pretty face for the film’s male audience. They all step clumsily into predictable roles, a fault I should actually be thankful for. No one goes to a movie called Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes to see human beings running around San Francisco. They go because they want to see apes. If you want to see apes, I recommend this movie. You will get what you wanted, and more. This movie is a lot more intelligent than its history, or title, would have you believe.
Best Moment | Caesar’s magnificent ambush aboard the Golden Gate Bridge.
Worst Moment | Will’s wimpy pilot neighbour who, I suspect, is a child abuser.