Dawn of the Planet of the Apes – Questions on CGI ‘Acting’

Past meets future, CGI meets human, human meets ape in “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014)

The key to making a great sequel has always been enhancing on the ideas of the first movie. Too often do we get sequels where the emphasis is solely put on adding more fluff; whether it’s more jokes, more expensive locales, or more ‘stars’. In Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, we get an appropriate progression of the ideas of the first film: the compare/contrast between man and ape and the irony of technological advancement and intelligence.

I feel like it’s more than just coincidence that the apes in this movie, most of whom are actually CGI creations whose movements are powered by motion capture, seem more human than the humans do. Their eyes, their expressions, the way they walk and talk, every motion of theirs is filled with a passion or an intent. There is no waste of time when it comes with these apes. They care for one another, they build as a community, they fight as a community, and they die as a community. You rarely see a single ape on his own do things for his own volition, except of course, the villain of the film, an ape named Koba who separates himself as a rebel force. The humans on the other hand, are not very interesting nor are they very emotionally resonant. I asked myself during the film, has our film technology gotten so good that we see more from a computer graphics figure than we do from an actual human actor? Is that possible? I think it happened in this movie.

In the old and original Planet of the Apes films, the apes were just humans in Halloween costumes. The apes were cold and dry in those movies because, well, they were supposed to be the out and out villains, but also because you can’t really act much through a mask. Now, the apes are no longer the bad guys, their society is comprised of many types of ‘people’ (is it ok to call them that?), they debate and disagree, they fight and die and cure and forgive each other. Their society is just as human as ours even though it’s not as technologically advanced. When the humans look back on the apes, they see civilizations past… they see their own human history, what it was maybe 100 or 200 thousand years ago. But outside the context of the story, the apes, ironically, represent the future and not the past. They, CGI creations with such humanism and unbelievable detail, represent the advancement and future of human cinema technology.

The greatness of the film and the series then, comes from its ability to blur the line between ape and human, and also the line between acting and motion capture. Andy Serkis is clearly the best actor in the movie, and while his performance was not as apparent nor as eye-opening as in the first movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes (an overall better film, but not by much), he was still able to give Ceasar particularly human traits in his voice and motions. “Home” and “Family” are two words that Ceasar utters from his heart, you can tell because he must take a breath and a pause after each one. Smaller words, sparser words actually make more impactful words… while the humans seem to blabber on quickly with their complex sentences, the apes are careful to choose which words they use, sometimes only uttering a single one, but with fire and brimstone. Maybe that too, is a way for this film to tell us what the future may hold.


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