When CGI (computer-generated imagery) made it’s first film appearance as part of a short sequence in 1982’s Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, few could of imagined the huge impact the technology would have on the future of modern cinema. From the creation of convincing alien landscapes to wholly computer animated features, the CG revolution has helped filmmakers conjure up the unimaginable and bring it to life.
And yet in recent years, CGI has become somewhat a stick with which to beat the modern blockbuster! Too much CGI often results in a flat and synthetic feel, reducing the art to a tool used merely as visual shorthand for lazy, uninspiring filmmakers. Read a few reviews of the Star Wars prequels for example, and no doubt you’ll find CGI being discussed in a not-so positive context. No wonder it has now become trendy for filmmakers to use CG sparingly, plumping for old-school sets, models and prosthetics over digital effects – CGI has become a dirty word in the world of film criticism.
So when a film as magnificent as War for the Planet of the Apes comes along, chock full of spellbinding visuals and engaging, three-dimensional characters bought to life through stunning motion capture, it’s near impossible to label CGI as anything other then a godsend. Yes, the original Ape prosthetics of John Chambers remain to this day a pinnacle of make-up effects, but the rebooted series of Apes film’s use of motion capture technology remains just as visually impressive!
Andy Serkis once again returns to the role of Caesar, who along with his colony of similarly intelligent Simians, finds himself under threat from powerful human militia, led by the unhinged but stoic Colonel McCullough (Woody Harrelson). Events conspire to put Caesar on a dangerous path, as he and his friends must contend yet again with a brewing war between man and monkey, one that may wipe out both sides.
By now, Serkis and the team at Weta Digital have the art of motion capture performance down to a tee. Caesar and the other non-human characters are glorious to behold, instilling emotion, empathy and real presence in every scene, despite being made of mostly pixels and digital wireframes. Serkis in particular makes Caesar feel all too real, so nuanced is his wonderfully immersive and poignant performance.
Matt Reeves, here directing his second Planet of the Apes film, clearly knows that the key to the film’s success is not just action, but also heart. The script puts its lead character through the emotional ringer, leaving plenty of room for intimacy and emotional turmoil in and among the daring escape narrative the script serves up.
Even Woody Harrelson‘s unhinged Colonel gets an emotional arc. It may not paint him in an entirely sympathetic light, but it does go some way into revealing why this villainous army grunt has become so determined, ruthless, and cold-blooded in his persecution of the Apes. Harrelson is an excellent and powerful presence throughout the movie, his understated menace conjuring up a Colonel Kurtz-esque figure with delusional moments of godhood. A lesser actor would ham it up, but Harrelson knows better then to do so, instead wringing the tension out of every scene he appears in through his quiet yet imposing manner.
Like its genetically-enhanced Simian protagonist, the film is an intelligent, thoughtful and powerful beast – parallels with real-life historical atrocities help underpin the post-apocalyptic drama, whilst some slight moments of political satire creep in here and there. But beyond these comparisons, the film still remains a smart yet explosive action romp, one that puts the emotional moments upfront for all to see and feel. From moving moments of tragedy within Caesar’s ranks to the heartwarming relationship between Orangutan Maurice and the human orphan Nova (played by talented newcomer Amiah Miller), this latest Apes instalment keeps the extraordinary events remarkably human.
War for the Planet of the Apes has plenty going for it in terms of story and character, but ultimately it’s Andy Serkis’ outstanding performance as Caesar that is the highlight. Backed up by impressive and meticulous work from the visual effects team, it’s a truly scene-stealing performance that is beautifully nuanced, provoking and engaging, much like the film itself as a whole.
CGI may not be such a dirty word after all…
War for the Planet of the Apes is out in UK Cinemas Tuesday 11th July.