Sometimes it's best to wait through the pre-release hype to see a movie. That's a rare occurrence for this pundit, but every once in awhile it happens with a big movie. In this case, travel and business schedules dictated viewing Rupert Wyatt's acclaimed "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" six days after its debut. The early buzz had been iffy on "Apes" and Fox certainly wasn't screening it early, but a funny thing happened on the way to opening day - some very strong reviews.
With a very good 69 on Metacritic including raves from Time's Richard Corliss, the LA Times' Kenneth Turan and the Wall Street Journal's Joe Morgenstern and a more than satisfactory 82% on Rotten Tomatoes, "Apes" has become one of the strongest reviewed films of the summer. What most critics are raving about however, isn't James Franco's phoned in performance (the less about that the better), but the impressive combination of Andy Serkis' motion capture turn combined with the CG artistry from his old friends at WETA.
Serkis and WETA have worked before on everything from "The Lord of the Rings" trilogy to "King Kong" (where he also played an Ape) to the upcoming "The Adventures of Tintin." Their collaboration here in the creation of the increasingly intelligent Caesar basically makes up for"Apes" somewhat weak storyline. As Caesar grows up and he begins to take on more "human" qualities, the audience begins to care and for him and he becomes the film's hero. It's a nice switch from previous "Apes" movies where the primates were basically the villains, but there is no true surprise with where the film is going. Especially since it's an admitted prequel. But Wyatt's direction and Serkis/Weta's Caesar provide some tender moments amongst the rebellious apes that will catch anyone's eye. And to be clear, no one is disputing Wyatt's work in crafting a film which is as much a CG/live action hybrid as the "Smurfs." It's no easy task to use so much CG in a drama and make the whole enterprise believable. Especially when your story isn't taking place on an alien world filled with gigantic blue-skinned warriors (yes, we realize that ain't easy either, but you get the point…). However, let's be clear, throwing around "best picture contender" is a little out of bounds at this point and for a number of reasons.
The Oscar buzz for "Apes" has been in a few select editorials, but mostly on twitter. And, these snap judgments are coming from critics or media who just don't get the Academy. It would be one thing if there were still a guaranteed 10 slots in the best picture race (there aren't). It would be another thing if it wasn't an incredibly competitive year (it is). And more so, it would be another thing if the Academy consistently gave love to genre-esque films ("Avatar" and "Lord of the Rings" aside, they don't).
On the other hand, many are hoping that Serkis can break through and become the first actor nominated for a motion-capture performance. And considering, Zoe Saldana's fine work in "Avatar" (and I'd say Jim Carrey was pretty remarkable in "A Christmas Carol" too), it's clear this is going to happen someday. But, will Serkis cross that line? If he lands a nod, it's going to be because of a very, very concentrated and strong campaign by Fox. The studio is going to have to convince a good deal of the actor's branch that only Serkis could have pulled this off. The best supporting actor category isn't a war zone like the best actress or best actor fields will be this year, but it's not weak. Again, Serkis and WETA make "Apes" work, but making awards history won't be easy (it never is).
One thing that is a lock is a nomination for best visual effects. In fact, "Apes" is probably the front runner to win just for the sheer volume of realistic apes that populate the film. Still, it will face real competition from "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Pt. 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," "Thor," "Super 8" "Immortals" and, possibly, "Battle: Los Angeles."
Among other technical credits, it's hard to see "Apes" making any noise outside of the sound categories. The cinematography and score are just too middle of the road (truth hurts).
Lastly, kudos have to go to Big Fox for allowing Wyatt and the producers of "Apes" to go in such an unconventional direction in the first place.. Especially for a franchise that needed a lift after the bad taste left in everyone's mouth after Tim Burton's "Planet of the Apes" reboot a decade ago. Along with the excellent "X-Men: First Class" this summer, it's both surprising and encouraging for a studio often maligned for any genre project not involving James Cameron.
Do you think "Apes" or Serkis are real Oscar contenders? Share your thoughts below.
For year-round entertainment commentary and awards season news follow Gregory Ellwood on Twitter @HitFixGregory.