The One Thing That Can Save Cinema From C.G.I. Oblivion

He’s a goofy little ape in a puffer vest, and he’s giving us a thumbs-up. This was just a small moment of levity in an otherwise grim and operatic film, the 2017 epic “War for the Planet of the Apes.” But it stuck with me. In the midst of a dire war for the fate of humanity, we watch this misfit creature amble into the frame, dwarfed by a magisterial orangutan on one side and the stately ape revolutionary Caesar on the other, both preparing for battle. He turns to Caesar for approval, waits for an awkward beat and flashes his thumbs-up. I cannot overstate how charming it is.

Up to that point, the new “Planet of the Apes” movies had mostly been Caesar’s show, with two films focused on his journey from laboratory animal to building a peaceful simian civilization in California’s Muir Woods. The films follow his evolution patiently — in part, perhaps, because they are following the steps of an actor’s process. Caesar is a digitally rendered ape, but he is played, via performance-capture technology, by Andy Serkis, the man whose bravura turn as Gollum in Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” films elevated him to become more or less the Laurence Olivier of motion-capture acting. Some 10 years later, Caesar was Serkis’s opportunity to build a mo-cap character from scratch in front of an audience, proving just how well an actor could translate legible humanity to a CGI animal. Part of what’s so remarkable about the 2010s “Apes” films was how much they conditioned viewers to thrill at close-ups of this chimpanzee’s eyes, the performance of impossible consciousness behind them.

So it was a big deal when Steve Zahn, playing that goofy little ape, snatched his own small moment. The first thing that stood out was its physicality — a wholly digital creature exhibiting unmissably human comic timing. Second was the playfulness: All this technology was being marshaled not for some action sequence or alien vista but for one funny monkey. What was most incredible, though, was its sheer ordinariness as a piece of film acting. Zahn strolled into a series dominated by Serkis’s performance and made one little attention-grabbing gesture — the sort of thing that usually happens organically, between humans on a film set. Yet here it was, rendered in pixels, gesture by gesture: The simple miracle of a stolen scene.

The entire recent “Apes” universe, from 2011 onward — which now includes this month’s new “Kingdom of the Planet of the Apes” — was designed to let this kind of high-tech realism thrive. The films shoot partly on location, rather than using totalizing digital environments. They’re chockablock with action, but their most compelling work takes place in intimate conversation, ape to ape. Between the digital disposability of Marvel’s multiverse and the paint-by-numbers CGI smoothing of seemingly everything on Netflix, the “Apes” films remind us that we once imagined a more humane future for these tools — the re-creation of reality, rather than its replacement. To save cinema from oblivion, maybe we should take another look at the mo-cap actor.

You’ll already know motion capture, or performance capture: It’s that thing where actors typically wear ridiculous bodysuits and get covered with little dots, so their movements can be recorded and then applied to computer-generated 3-D figures. When this technology emerged in the movies around the start of this century, it was by turns revelatory and embarrassing. For every Davy Jones — Bill Nighy’s menacing octopus pirate from “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” — there was some unholy nightmare like Tom Hanks in “Polar Express” or Jar Jar Binks, paragliding through the uncanny valley.

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