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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Rise of the Planet of the Apes should never have worked. It was a prequel/reboot that precisely no one asked for, helmed by no-name director Rupert Wyatt, written by the screenwriters of such horror classics as The Relic and Eye for an Eye, made back when 20th Century Fox still had an awful reputation among film geeks. And somehow, this film became a cornerstone of Fox’s rehabilitation. Between the wonderful action scenes and the effective character drama, the film was far better than it had any right to be.

Then news of a sequel inevitably came, and it was the second verse of the same song. Wyatt left the production, to be replaced by director Matt “the Cloverfield guy” Reeves. Also, word came that Rise of the Planet of the Apes would be followed by a movie titled Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Someone had to be kidding. Seriously, put those two titles next to each other and how could anyone possibly tell which film was the sequel?

Once again, this film had no chance of working. As with last time, an Andy Serkis performance was the sole reason why this movie could possibly be any good. It’s still an unwieldy title with an unremarkable director, hoping to recapture the magic of a total fluke. This had to be a total failure, right?

Nope!

The film opens ten years after the “Simian Flu” outbreak (witnessed during the end credits of the previous film) apparently wiped out humanity. In the time since, Caesar (Andy Serkis, reprising his role) has led his fellow super-intelligent apes to make the world a very different place. The apes are now a settlement of hundreds, with the capacity to build walls, make tools, send out hunting parties, and even write — as in physically write, in actual letters with chalk on stone — their own rudimentary laws (first among them: “Ape will not kill ape”). Caesar himself has a family, with a son who’s eager to prove his worth and a wife who’s just given birth to another son.

It also bears mentioning that though the apes clearly have a decent grasp of the English language, they’re not quite up to forming whole sentences yet. Also, their vocabulary is mostly comprised of monosyllabic words. Still, the apes have a very robust sign language system, and their speech improves notably as the film continues. Granted, they never get to be as articulate as the apes of the ’68 original, but there’s still a lot of clear development that’s quite intriguing to watch.

Anyway, things go well until the apes discover that the humans aren’t nearly as extinct as previously thought. In fact, there’s a surprisingly large colony of survivors holed up in the heart of San Francisco. And they’re rather alarmed to find that the apes are neither as few nor as dumb as they had believed.

It would be an understatement to say that relations between the two parties are strained. Still, their leaders are able to work out a tentative peace agreement. After all, these apes are a fledgling civilization and these humans may be the last survivors of a time long past. Both species are on the brink of extinction, unable to afford the massive casualties that a war would bring.

However, a ceasefire is only as strong as its least trustworthy participant, and there’s a whole lotta mistrust to go around. Remember, most of the apes who helped Caesar found his little commune — all of them high-ranking and respected leaders among the primates — came from zoos and research labs. As for the humans, well, there’s that teeny little epidemic that caused the end of the world. Both sides have grudges to bear, is the point I’m trying to make.

What’s more, both sides believe that they are above the other. The apes were founded on the notion that they are a family, capable of working and living together in harmony like the humans never could. And of course, the humans still believe that they’re inherently superior to animals because… well, that’s what we’ve always believed, isn’t it? The point being that both sides are proven wrong, as they keep bringing out the worst in each other. Thus we have an examination of humanity’s primal nature, a classic theme of post-apocalyptic cinema given a fresh and intriguing twist.

Of course, it’s not like the entire cast is comprised of primate characters. Jason Clarke, Keri Russell, Gary Oldman, Kodi Smit-McPhee (here reuniting with his old Let Me In director), and Kirk Acevedo all play the main Homo sapiens. It’s a lucky thing that these actors are so rock-solid and perfectly suited for their roles, because their incredible screen presence is just distracting enough that it took me the whole movie to realize how bland the characters are. For all the screen time I spent with these characters, I doubt I could even tell you a single one of their names.

It’s tempting to think that the characters might have been more developed if we spent more time in the human colony, and it’s true that we barely see the place, but that wouldn’t have done anyone any favors. Humanity got wiped out by a massive epidemic and the last colony of survivors is trying to keep the power back on because all that’s holding them together is the hope that they can someday rebuild the world as it used to be. That’s all we’re given and it’s all we need to know. Surely we’ve seen enough post-apocalyptic films and TV shows that we can fill in the blanks for ourselves at this point.

No, the movie was quite wise to focus on developing the ape settlement, which is something unique to this particular franchise. More to the point, Reeves was obviously smart enough to realize that one of the previous film’s greatest strengths was in its use of CGI to bring primate characters to the screen. The previous film did a lot to establish monkeys as a legitimate threat (not an easy task, I’m sure), but this film goes so much further to show primates as creatures who can move with such grace and stealth that they couldn’t possibly be human. More importantly, the advanced CGI plays a huge part in creating emotive characters who don’t look like pixels over a wire-frame. These are well-developed characters who look so lifelike and emote so clearly that forming a connection with them is effortless.

To be clear, all this talk about CGI wizardry doesn’t take away from the fantastic mo-cap performances that are every bit as crucial to the apes’ presentation. Andy Serkis is of course superlative, but that should go without saying at this point. The guy is a phenomenally talented actor, both in and out of a mo-cap suit, such that I still don’t think he’s really gotten his due yet. Other MVPs include Toby Kebbell as the warlike Koba and and Nick Thurston as Caesar’s conflicted son. But then we have Judy Greer, such a woefully underrated actress that I hate to see her talents wasted. She plays Caesar’s wife, who spends most of her meager screen time sick in bed. Damn shame.

Last but not least, we have Matt Reeves himself. I was on the fence about Reeves, unable to sufficiently understand why he has this reputation as a wonderful up-and-coming talent, but now I finally get it. Not only was he able to coax strong performances out of his cast to elevate some weak characters, but he does a remarkable job of balancing the human/ape conflict so that we can see the various parallels between them. Not only does this highlight several intelligent themes in clever ways, but it also keeps the scope and tension at a high mark. Even better, Reeves shows an uncanny ability to use humorous and heartfelt moments for maximum impact. The whole film is consistently, distressingly good at luring the audience into a false sense of security right before everything comes crashing down like a perfectly-timed elbow drop to the chest.

This expert use of tone and emotion is a crucial strength that reinforces every single aspect of the film, especially during the action scenes. The battles and fights in this film land hard, and not just because they show armies of soldiers blowing each other up with fantastic stunts and choreography. No, the action scenes in this movie work because we know exactly what’s being lost. Every single time a character picks up a gun, peace becomes less likely and one species (or both!) is that much closer to extinction.

That’s right, folks. They made a movie with CGI monkeys to convey the unnecessary horrors of war… and it works. The message comes through loud and clear. That’s how good this movie is.

(Side note: Don’t bother sitting through the end credits for this one. I checked and there’s nothing there.)

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the rare multimillion-dollar CGI blockbuster that focuses on the emotions of its characters, and everything about the movie, from the action to the drama, is made better for it. Of course, it helps that the film does such a fantastic job of giving us mo-cap primates who are lifelike and developed enough to merit such a deep emotional connection. The exceptional direction and sterling cast help a lot as well.

Incidentally, I wonder what could they possibly call the next movie. “Planet of the Apes: Origins“? “Arrival of the Planet of the Apes“? “Planet of the Apes Begins“? No, they can only bring so many prequels to the screen until they inevitably have to show us the goddamn Planet of the Apes.

Somehow, I know it in my gut that the next film will be the one to fail as it tries to bridge that gap. But nothing would please me more than to be wrong about this franchise a third time. If the filmmakers somehow manage to keep up this level of quality, the rebooted Apes franchise could be every bit as influential and groundbreaking as the original series was.

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