by Tony Dayoub
Out on DVD and Blu-ray today, one of this year's best horror films, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, is an update of the most chilling entry in the 1970s science fiction franchise. 1972's Conquest of the Planet of the Apes, the penultimate film in the series, postulated a future in which domesticated apes turned on their masters after being organized by a once meek chimpanzee named Caesar (Roddy McDowall). For those familiar with Los Angeles history, images of rioting gorillas in a Century City set aflame still stir up uncomfortable parallels with what were then the recent Watts riots. Rise wisely avoids the racially tinged narrative of its progenitor and instead concentrates on the controversies attendant to animal lab-testing, zoological abuse, and the recent spate of chimp attacks in domestic environments.
Though a large part of Rise's success is due to the willingness of its ensemble cast (James Franco, Freida Pinto, John Lithgow, David Oyelowo, Brian Cox) to play the story straight, an even greater share of the credit should go to Andy Serkis, the actor whose performance was captured in order to generate a much more believable Caesar than McDowall's version. This is no slam against McDowall who, over the course of four of the five original Planet of the Apes movies, went from minor supporting player to undisputed series star. But his Shakespearean performance was hampered by the limited makeup effects of the period. Serkis, who so brilliantly imbued the computer generated Gollum in The Lord of the Rings trilogy with no small measure of pathos, does a remarkable job of giving the mute Caesar an interior life as nuanced and deep as those of his supporting characters.
Weta Digital, the performance capture pioneers of Lord of the Rings and Avatar, transcend the usual limitations of the technology which often manifests itself in characters with flat, lifeless eyes (The Polar Express is a good example). Caesar's eyes—which director Rupert Wyatt boldly calls attention to by making a story point of their strange green flecks—evolve from the open innocence of youth to the furtive cynicism of experience as the gifted chimpanzee's story arc unfolds.
A majority of the disc's extras focuses on both Serkis's portrayal and the technology used to enhance it, distilling a lot of the techno-jargon into an entertaining look at contemporary visual effects work that could easily double for one of those "For Your Consideration" ads aimed at Academy voters (who I have little doubt will reward the movie with at least a nomination in this department) at this time of year. The only drawback to the special features are their presentation format. What could easily have been presented in one extended documentary, is unnecessarily broken up into small bite-sized chunks in order to give the illusion of more content. Otherwise, the content is informative and the movie itself sports an excellent digital transfer.