If a film is being sold on the strength of its visual effects, you’re in dangerous territory. The George Clooney film The Perfect Storm as sold on the strength of the massive digital wave shown in the poster. Then there was Twister, whose selling point was a flying cow (or something; all I remember was that it was shithouse). The best special effects are the ones used to enhance a story, not exist as the basis for it. I remember being infinitely impressed with the digital technology used to make 60-somethings Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen look 25 years younger in X-Men: The Last Stand. The rest of the film didn’t stand up to a great deal of scrutiny, but I was impressed that they were using this technology for good, rather than to just blow shit up.
There is an unassailable geeky cool surrounding the whole Planet of the Apes universe; from Charlton Heston’s original (and great) 1968 version; the camp appeal of the handful of sequels and TV shows and cartoons that followed. I stand alone as being a fan of the 2001 Tim Burton remake: you just have to admire the craft involved in the makeup effects and performances; it was a very enjoyable piece of work, even if the third act was rubbish. I went in to the film in a foul mood, ate this monstrous chocolate ice cream thing during that film that perked me up no end; I think my appreciation of the film got caught up in the sugar rush.
So a combination of motion capture digital effects, the arc of the Planet of the Apes mythos and a solid story to go with it makes this prequel/reboot worthwhile. It’s above everything else an engaging, entertaining action picture, but one with well constructed (simian) characterisations, a good script and a plum morality/cautionary tale thrown in to boot.
There may be some kind of caution among moviegoers about the film being sold on the strength of its visual effects, but there is a world more to it than just that. At the centre of the whole thing is a performance by Andy Serkis as the central ape, Caesar. Serkis invests Caesar with a endless personality through the indelibly ‘human’ look in his eye and creates a triumph of visual effects and performance capture acting. It’s very rare in the film that your disbelief is suspended, and Serkis invests a world of personality to this character that Caesar runs the full, believable gamut from inquisitive and adorable chimp, to curious and frightened, to risible and angry revolutionary.
Ape Guevara, if you will.
There’s not a lot going on concerning the human characters – James Franco as the good-natured scientist doesn’t have a lot to work with, but is fine. Brian Cox and Tom Felton make very hissable villains, while John Lithgow is a touching addition to the cast as an Alzheimer’s-stricken counterpoint to the brainy simians. Frieda Pinto is, per The Hollywood Reporter, ‘playing the most boringly decorous tag-along girlfriend seen onscreen in years’. She doesn’t do much but look ‘nice’ and ‘concerned’ in equal measure. But you’re not along for this ride for the humans – it’s all about the apes. The Weta Digital folks have done something extraordinary here, and director Rupert Wyatt has made a comparatively fascinating action picture that’s probably 4000 times smarter than anything else trying to get your popcorn dollar at the moment.