There’s a useful Polish expression currently doing the rounds on Facebook: “Not my circus, not my monkeys.” It means, “Nothing to do with me, mate.”
Having seen Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, this is very much the Andy Serkis Circus, and boy, are these his monkeys. His portrayal of the ape leader, Caesar, is one of the wonders of the modern age. There are a very few films which hit you as a step-change in cinematic special effects: the first rumble of engines and long slow pan across a great spaceship in Star Wars; the liquid-metal morphing technology of Terminator 2; the 3D animation of Toy Story.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, so much more than Avatar or even Andy Serkis’s star turn as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings, is digital film-making’s breakthrough moment: the first moment a computer-generated character has truly emerged from the “uncanny valley” to appear fully real. It’s the eyes, famously the windows to the soul, that usually give the game away. Caesar’s are brooding, expressive, filled with wisdom and pain. The final shot, which zooms in on them, is one of the great climactic close-ups in film history: up there with Robert De Niro’s smile in Once Upon A Time In America.
It helps, perhaps, that the human cast are (deliberately?) so godawfully dull, aside from Gary Oldman’s obligatory blockbuster turn. The apes can’t help seeming more alive in comparison. But huge plaudits go not just to the special effects boffins, but to Andy Serkis’s mo-cap (motion-capture) performance. His Caesar, head permanently cocked to one side to indicate thought, is noble in restraint, terrifying in anger. When he speaks, it sends shivers up the spine.
Serkis’s reward is to direct a mo-cap movie of The Jungle Book, and to spark a debate about whether mo-cap actors should be eligible for an Oscar. How long before they get their own special category, as the Academy has now done with animated films?