There is a place few ardent film fans like to travel, and it's known as the "Uncanny Valley". That void, soulless look that seems locked in the eyeballs of most CGI rendered characters created with motion capture. You need look no further than the children and train conductor in The Polar Express for a fine example of how awful, and off-putting this dead stare can be. Its unnerving and wipes clean any emotional resonance you may feel towards a construct made of pixels and light. The good news is that Rise of the Planet of the Apes leaps over this vast canyon of sullen, black-hearted creepiness to give us an electric group of computer generated characters; some more alive than the humans we've seen at the Cineplex this summer. WETA is a lock for that Visual Effects Oscar at the Academy Awards come early next year.
That's the good news.
Actor Andy Serkis arrived at The California Institute of Technology in Pasadena late last week to showcase a few select scenes from Rise of the Planet of the Apes, along with the latest trailer. This new footage, which should arrive online soon, contains stellar, state-of-the-art visual imagery. The overwhelming fact is: This man has truly turned in a performance that is as spectacular and as engaging as any that has ever brought home a best Actor Oscar in the past. Andy Serkis drags his Ceaser into stunning depths of human clarity. This ape is mystifying to stare at, and captivating on his own in an environment that, sadly, may prove to be his undoing.
It's all locked in those bright, green eyes. They are buzzing with an intensity that we've never seen captured in a CGI rendered character before. Even though Caesar is a fully animated construct, he is at all times engaging and believable. You simply cannot take your eyes away him. While WETA must be credited with crafting a wicked, lifelike creature of wonder, this ape's particular story of pain and longing is solely expressed in that larger-than-life face. This tsunami of emotions could have only come from a human being. These illuminated Pixels are but a form of make-up slathered on Andy Serkis, and what we are seeing on screen is not only the evolution of ape, but also of actor. And as a tagline, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is a major revolution.
The sad thing is, this award-worthy showcase may be locked inside an affable, yet lofty carnival of carnage and, dare I say, hammy acting by those not encumbered by the weight of technology...It's too early to tell, especially from these few scenes we were handed like a taster spoon, but Ceaser and his simian pals may be the only thing going for Rise of the Planet of the Apes when it finally arrives in theaters on August 5th.
Is that a bad thing? Not in a summer like the one we're having. But it is a little disconcerting. John Lithgow is an award-winning actor, yet he's not above chewing the scenery like a sumo wrestler at a buffet. Here, he seems to be in a different movie than his ape pals. Why are they taking this so seriously, and he is not? The classically trained thespian is playing a man with Alzheimer's. In a truly defining moment for Ceaser, who lives with, and look's after this old man, John Lithgow gives one of the most baffling depictions of memory loss that I have ever seen commited to film. There is no truth to his ambivalence, and the moment seems thrown in to offer the audience a singular thrill during its slow-to-role first act.
As a tease, we are given the lead up to this particular moment, which pretty much sets up the entire storyline of what's to come. James Franco plays scientist Will Rodman, who is working on a cure for Alzheimer's. He has been running tests on various Chimpanzees. When one of them quite literally goes bananas during a presentation, ape handler Franklin (Tyler Labine; great in Tucker and Dale Vs. Evil but miscast here) is ordered to kill all of his test subjects. After doing so, he and Rodman discover a baby chimpanzee, Ceaser, which they smuggle out of the compound and hide at Will's house.
As he grows, the chimpanzee learns to be human, and he becomes part of the family. It's charming, cute, and calls to mind the real life documentary Project Nim, which is in theaters now and would make for a great double feature with Rise of the Planet of the Apes.
Ceaser grows attached to Will and his Dad (John Lithgow), the later of which is eating his eggs with an upside down fork and forgetting his name. In what will probably be the goofiest scene in the movie, despite that it's perhaps one of the most crucial scenes, John Lithgow mumbles in innocent wonder at an expensive little sports car parked in front of his house. He climbs behind the wheel, finds that the keys are in the ignition, and proceeds to drive it back and forth, smashing the front and back of the cars he is parked between.
The owner of the car comes running out to see what is going on, angrily pulls John Lithgow from the car, and shoves his index finger deep into the old man's chest, scolding him. And rightly so. It's all so ridiculous. Ceaser witnesses this "attack", and takes offense. He runs outside and tackles the owner of the car. It almost seems as though we are watching a split screen of two separate films. Caesar is terrifying and enthralling. His bit is a thrilling moment of exhilaration. Yet there's John Lithgow tainting it with his ham-fisted weirdness. The tone is all over the place
And then there is James Franco, who is now forced to turn Caesar into the authorities, where the chimp is sent to live with the dregs of ape society. Franco just looks tired. He appears on-screen haggard, with dark circles under his eyes, barely awake, barely able to mumble and drool his scientifically specific lines of dialogue out and away from his mouth. In an odd way, it works for this character. As he would be under a lot of stress, encountering one sleepless night after the next, attempting to find the cure to a disease that would be a life changing medical breakthrough. It's either brilliant method acting, or the guy needs to take a break from life. In the few scenes we saw, he looked like he might fall into a coma at any second.
We were only given a few minutes from the second act, but it finds Caesar befriending the apes, orangutans, and chimpanzees that occupy his new digs, meant to be a sanctuary, but looking more like a jail. We see how he frees himself, stealing the knife of a shifty blonde haired douche bag whom we desperately want to see torn to pieces (I am positive his demise will come, albeit in PG-13 fashion).
We know what comes next from the trailers. There will be an ape uprising, and it should be awesome.
There were no real animals used in the making of Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which makes the footage even more breathtaking. Caesar and his gang of hairy knuckle draggers promise to bring one of the biggest "fuck-yeah!" climaxes seen at theaters this summer. And it all revolves around Andy Serkis' performance as this evolving chimpanzee.
Yes, he should definitely, at the very least, get an Oscar nomination for Best Actor when the time comes. This is a showcase performance. And it may be all that's needed to make Rise of the Planet of the Apes one of the funnest theatrical outings seen this year. Its too bad so much of the rest of it doesn't appear to be up to par. Let's hope what we haven't seen blows the roof off this rebooted franchise.