Rise of the Franchise of the Face

Article by Joel Frost

With Oscar season kicking into high gear, occasional reports about the lobbying process for various Academy Awards come dribbling in. One in particular caught my eye last week; Andy Serkis, it stated, will be pushed by the studio that gave us last summer’s “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” for either Best Supporting Actor or possibly Best Actor. This type of thing is normal; as the season unfolds, studios get behind certain actors and films with campaigns directed at those who vote for the awards, knowing such awards can bring new or continued prestige and revenue. 20th Century Fox has already green-lit a sequel to “Rise”, and any awards that the first film can garner will help raise the profile of the franchise further. A film like “Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes” is likely to be nominated for various technical awards, but what may happen with Serkis is not only extraordinary, it’s also a harbinger of a coming sea-change.

As anyone who’s seen the film (an plenty who haven’t) knows, “Rise” depicts the fulcrum moment when genetically-altered apes begin to become capable of what is meant to be a surge toward dominance over our planet. It’s a slice of sci-fi paranoia that exploits a bit of the collective human psyche: Are we “more” than our hairy ancestors? This new film is of course derived from the 1968 Charlton Heston (as ape-like as any of us) epic, “Planet Of The Apes”, and exists as something of a prequel to that film and its ensuing sequels (For the sake of civility and grace, let’s ignore Marky Mark’s 2001 debacle). Serkis plays (with a great deal of help from motion-capture technology) Caesar, the new leader of a murder of super-smart monkeys. He’s no stranger to this style of acting, as he spent many long months slithering around Frodo and Samwise on location in New Zealand with the proper electrodes attached, so that the image we all saw on the screen in “The Lord Of The Rings” trilogy looked less like him and a whole lot like a froggy bottom-feeder named Gollum, himself something of a less-evolved humanoid. Serkis will reprise that role in the coming prequels to “Lord Of The Rings”, a two-part version of “The Hobbit”, currently filming in New Zealand.

At the time of the “Rings” trilogy, Serkis’s acting in this realm was considered an accomplished oddity. Gollum was a fantasy character, and motion
capture hadn’t reached the levels of visual accomplishment that it has today, in films like “Rise”, “Avatar”, and plenty of others. Motion capture has indeed evolved, and the intelligence involved is poised to slowly but surely take over the world called Hollywood, like, one might push the metaphor, a pack of vengeful super-apes. Too much? Well, bear with me, bipeds, and wrap your opposable thumbs and frontal cortexes around this: Caesar, more human in appearance than Gollum or an Avatar, is indeed a message to the future. Why, if motion capture can show us realistic characters that interact naturally with human actors, will it stop with apes?

Imagine going to a new Indiana Jones film and seeing not aging Harrison Ford or (gasp) Shia LaBeouf cracking the whip under that fedora, but rather a young Harrison Ford’s face and body, leaping around with the spryness of Indiana Jones in his prime. Any decent actor or stunt-person could run through the motions and mouth the lines, and with the motion capture technology that’s available, Indy’s face could be altered into the young version of the character. With the strides that have been made in the field, such a scenario not only seems possible, but likely.

Daniel Day-Lewis is currently filming his scenes as Abraham Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln”, set for release in 2012. Lewis is as good as they come, but he doesn’t and can’t look exactly like our former President. With the available technology, though, Lewis (or anyone really) can look… can BE, on the screen… the spitting image of whoever he’s playing. As Serkis has shown us, it helps to have a master actor perform the part. But why, in an age when it’s increasingly possible to alter the appearance of anyone or anything in a movie, will anyone stand for anything less than the visage of Abraham Lincoln himself, perfectly rendered, up there on the silver screen?

For that matter, why stop with historical characters or much-loved heroes? It would be just as simple to have any actor, or person, living or dead, play any role. Curious to see Marilyn Monroe, a better actress now than she ever was while alive, cast along-side Justin Timberlake in the latest rom-com? Wonder what the rest of River Phoenix’s career would have looked like? Maybe you’d like to see Henry Kissinger dance the rhumba with Nikita Kruschev on the deck of the starship Enterprise? It all can… and likely will… happen.

Well, perhaps not those particular scenarios. But I’ll be willing to bet my journalist’s license that in the coming years, movie-goers will begin to see faces on the screen they’d never thought they’d get to see, looking as buoyant, luminous and alive as they ever did (probably moreso), performing roles they never had a chance to play, better than they could have. Actors will become faceless, as Hollywood, always interested in a franchise, will re-embrace the actors and people who have already proven their bankability and come with smaller price-tags than a real, live Brad Pitt. Brad recently said he wants to retire from acting in a few years, but there’s no reason that would have to stop him from leasing out his very appearance. He could spend all the time at home with his wife and kids he wants to and remain right up there on the big screen all the while. Why break a new star and wait for the public to grow accustomed to his or her face, when the estate of any number of rotting corpses would gladly sell the their legally-owned visage, a franchise in itself, to the highest bidder? Sounds a little creepy, don’t it? Any doubts it’s coming? Any doubts among actors that… you’re being replaced?

We’ll know more about how fast the change will occur on the morning when the Oscar nominations are announced. If Andy Serkis is nominated for an award, and for the record, I think he’d be fully deserving of one, hang on to your seats. A new age of Hollywood is upon us, or I’ll be a monkey’s Uncle.

“Rise of the Planet of the Apes” will be released on Blu-Ray, DVD and streaming December 13, 2011.

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