In 2002, the Broadcast Film Critic’s Association created a brand new category for their Critics’ Choice Awards: Best Digital Acting Performance. Yoda, Harry Potter‘s Dobby, and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers‘ Gollum faced off in what turned out to be the only time the award was ever given. Peter Serkis won for his motion capture performance as Towers‘ creepy little cave-dweller, and this year (assuming the BFCA resurrects the award– which they damn well should) he’s an instant lock to take it again.

As Caesar, the ringleader of the mutinous band of primates in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Serkis turns in a performance that’s not only stunning in its own right but also overshadows every single human performance, too (in a cast that includes Oscar nominee James Franco, Oscar winner John Lithgow, and BAFTA nominee Freida Pinto).

When we first meet Caesar he’s a newborn chimp, the orphaned baby of a test subject in the lab where Will (Franco) is researching a possible new cure for Alzheimer’s, the disease his dad Charles (Lithgow) has been afflicted with for years. After Will’s research gets prematurely kyboshed, he ape-naps little Caesar and takes him home along with a few vials of the wonder drug.

Within just a few years, Caesar (who, it turns out, had some of the drug in his system) has turned into Wonder Chimp, able to communicate via sign language. And Charles has not only recovered from Alzheimer’s, he’s actually improved.

Of course all this happiness is bound to evaporate; sure enough Charles begins going downhill fast, and when Caesar gets too smart for his own good (at the expense of a very unfortunate neighbor), he’s ‘sentenced’ to live in a local monkey house. Upset at being abandoned, he eventually starts rallying the troops, and before you can say ‘banana’, the apes have joined forces to form a mega-army.

First-time big feature director Rupert Wyatt hits the ground running with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. The action is fast and furious right from the get-go, and it doesn’t let up until the credits start rolling. Relying on incredible effects from Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital (District 9, Avatar), Wyatt has put together a visually-stunning showcase. The primates look like the real thing; if you didn’t know that every single animal in the movie was faked, you’d swear at least a few are the real thing.

…which brings us back to Serkis. The motion capture technology that allowed his movements to be replicated for Caesar is now also able to capture finer details like nuanced facial expressions and mannerisms– all the things that help create a well-defined personality. As a result, Apes is more than just a ‘cool’ to look at; it’s also utterly compelling.

Franco, Lithgow, and Pinto all do their usual great work here, but this is Caesar’s movie from start to finish, and he is (via Serkis) simply incredible. Even if he’s the only nominee this year, Serkis definitely derserves to have the BFCA (and a few other award-giving… er, academies) sit up and take notice.

4/5 stars