Whilst pushing boundaries in visual effects, the latest instalment of the Planet of the Apes franchise is less successful at old fashioned elements like story and character.
Pierre Boule’s 1963 novel about a world where apes are the dominate species inspired a franchise of five films from 1968 to 1973, the most notable being the original Planet of the Apes (1968) starring Charlton Heston.
After an unwise big-budget remake from Tim Burton in 2001, 20th Century Fox have decided to revive the series by going back to the present day and exploring the early origins of intelligent apes.
The story begins when a San Francisco scientist (James Franco) develops a possible cure for Alzheimer’s Disease and over a period of several years notices the remarkable effects of his new drug on a chimpanzee named Caesar (Andy Serkis), who gradually begins to rebel against his human masters.
Essentially a prequel very loosely based on the original films, the main aim here was to create a summer blockbuster in which the main attraction is not a movie star or character but the visual effects.
Employing Weta Digital, the main effects company behind The Lord of the Rings trilogy and Avatar, the film does indeed break ground in the field of performance capture technology.
Having Andy Serkis play the lead ape via performance capture technology certainly gives his character a sense of believability and depth, that a purely digital version created from scratch would not.
Not only do the faces of the apes feel more authentic but their movement and interplay with live action characters is about as impressive as the current technology will allow.
The basic storyline of the apes rising also builds on the powerful metaphor that has made the franchise endure over several decades as a kind of riff on Frankenstein and the arrogance of mankind.
However, the film also cuts corners in vital areas, with the human drama weakened by undercooked writing and an overreliance on digital effects.
The main actors are woefully underwritten and simply going through the motions: Franco walks through the film in a haze (much like he did whilst presenting the Oscars), Frieda Pinto as his partner is merely a cipher, John Lithgow is only intermittently engaging as Franco’s father and David Oyelowo is given an utterly ridiculous role as the token corporate villain in a suit.
Also popping up in curiously underdeveloped roles as ape-keepers are Brian Cox (who is shamefully wasted) and Tom Felton, who appears like he’s on a sabbatical from the Harry Potter franchise.
This all makes the interaction between the two species less effective because it is hard to care about apes rising when the humans are such one-note dullards.
The visual scope is also limited by director Rupert Wyatt using a lot of interior locations: houses, labs and cages dominate much of the film and even when it ventures outside for the big finale, one of the most iconic locations in America is clearly an alternative bridge augmented by green screen effects.
This obviously pleases the studio accountants but reduces the scale and overall visual feel of films on the big screen and Rise of the Planet of the Apes does not benefit from this penny-pinching approach.
Given that the main selling point is the visual effects, the film also suffers from an intriguing paradox – in that as they get more detailed and realistic, they become more noticeable to the human eye.
The most impressive aspect are the close up shots of Caesar’s basic interaction with human beings, but when they try to do flashy ‘one take’ shots of him swinging around the house or climbing trees, the realism is diminished.
One of the supposed advances in this film is that advanced visual creations are seen in real life locations, but that is actually part of the problem.
Watching this on an unforgiving big screen, one can see the digital joins in certain scenes which make the technically ‘inferior’ old school approach of ape make-up – as used in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) or the 1968 and 2001 versions of The Planet of the Apes – seem more believable.
But whilst the film is a decidedly mixed bag, there may be a strong appetite for a big release that isn’t an animated feature or a film based on a comic book character.
Fox have been keeping this film under wraps until the last week, which they claim was a result of working the visual effects up to the last possible minute.
I suspect it was part of a more carefully planned marketing strategy, as the selling point of this film is that the creepy Frankenstein narrative gives it a different tone to the good versus evil stories that have littered the multiplexes this summer.
This film could mark the resurgence of a franchise whose apocalyptic atmosphere may chime in with current fears of an economic collapse, but it also shows the limits of even the most advanced visual effects, if traditional elements are found wanting.
Aside from having one too many the’s in the title, the film is almost a metaphor for itself: advanced technology (CGI) is used to create super apes (on screen) but only ends up showing how shallow humans are.
> Official website
> Reviews at Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes
> Find out more about the Planet of the Apes franchise at Wikipedia
> Popular Mechanics interview Andy Serkis about the motion capture process