'Dawn of the Planet of the Apes'
One horrendous remake and one sequel too far aside, the ‘Planet of the Apes’ series has quietly become one of the most consistently excellent film franchises in La-La-land, and the latest installment in no exception. A true epic blockbuster with stunning effects and plenty of monkey mayhem, ‘Dawn of the Planet of the Apes’ is a glorious popcorn-munching bit of summer movie bliss.
2011’s ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes unexpectedly revived the franchise with a smart, yet goofy prequel that loosely remade ‘Conquest of the Planet of the Apes’ through the lens of contemporary animal rights activism. ‘Dawn’ picks up ten years later. The magic formula that made apes intelligent also proved to be poisonous to humans and has wiped out most of Earth’s population. Now humans live in rotted-out cities in a post-apocalyptic daze.
But Matt Reeves’ (‘Cloverfield’) film doesn’t start there. Instead, it opens with Caesar (Andy Serkis) watching over the ape utopia he created outside San Francisco following the uprising he led in the last movie. We see a community of hyper-intelligent apes communicating through sign language and a handful of spoken words living in harmony. That gets disrupted when a human (Jason Clarke) wanders into their midst for the first time in years. He does so peacefully, hoping to pass through – along with his new makeshift family (Keri Russell, Kodi Smit-McPhee) and a few others – to repair a nearby dam and return power to the decimated San Francisco that he and a few hundred survivors call home. Caesar is nervous, and his scarred-face ape buddy Koba (Toby Kebbell) wants to attack. (Ditto the human leader Gary Oldman.) However, Caesar allows the humans to reach the dam in the hopes of promoting peace, against the wishes of Koba. The small group of humans even endear themselves to the apes, but if you’ve seen the trailers or even the poster for the film, you can safely assume that the peace won’t last for long.
The film is essentially a loose remake of ‘Battle for the Planet of the Apes’ with the new motion-capture CGI apes from the last movie. Continuity is limited to Caesar, but given the wooden acting and ludicrous characters from ‘Rise’, that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Reeves wisely tells his war story with equal weight given to both sides. We immediately sympathize with the apes based on the last film, and gradually come to admire the humans as well.
Fulfilling the franchise mandated allegory/social commentary, the film is ultimately an examination of the futility of war and the violence inherent in human and animal nature. These themes are handled fairly subtly and well, though truthfully, one advantage that ‘Rise’ has over ‘Dawn’ is that it had much more to say within its tale of monkey warfare, even if those messages were a little confused and hammered home with thunderous obviousness. Reeves’ film is crafted with intelligence and maturity, but is easily the least politically charged entry in the franchise (other than that Tim Burton debacle). This doesn’t drastically harm the movie, but is worth mentioning.
What the film lacks in subtext, it more than makes up in storytelling and spectacle. The digital ape wizardry on display here is astounding. Serkis’ performance in the last film might have earned justified praise, but here he and the entire ape community are depicted with remarkable care and insight. You feel for these apes, and can easily identify key characters amongst a sea of similar faces. Reeves bravely allows long sequences to pass comprised of little more than apes silently connecting and conversing through sign language.
Serkis is incredible once more, as are the team of mo-cap players alongside him, including the equally impressive Toby Kebbell as the villainous Koba and Judy Greer as Caesar’s wife. The ape animation is an evolution above the previous film as well, offering remarkable details, life and clarity to the wonderful silent (well, mostly) performances from the mo-cap cast. The evolution of the apes to walking upright, riding horses, fighting and speaking is well done and feels utterly believable after the last film. The human characters are sometimes neglected and underwritten, but thankfully Reeves has cast charismatic actors to cover those cracks. In fairness, this movie is the apes’ story, and it’s a good one.
Reeves proved in ‘Cloverfield’ and ‘Let Me In’ that he’s no slouch when it comes to action and atmosphere, and he certainly delivers a wild summer movie rollercoaster here. Whether it be quietly creepy scenes such as Koba playing “silly monkey” to distract a pair of humans long enough to steal their machine gun, or the eventual mass attack led by an army of apes on horseback firing assault rifles (just as awesome as it sounds), this is a blockbuster that delivers on its promised scope, scale, story and spectacle. (Even the 3D is well done, given that the movie was actually shot in the format, which is used more for immersion and atmosphere than gotcha gags.)
The film is a rip-roaring adventure with well-earned emotional turmoil and a dusting of social commentary. In short, it’s exactly what this franchise wanted and needed right now. Complaints can be made about the underdeveloped humans and the second half’s push for mayhem over subtext, but those apply to blockbuster filmmaking in general and hardly harm the film’s impact.
Matt Reeves came into this project as a lifelong fan of the series with particular fondness for the last movie, and has delivered the sequel that he wanted to see as part of the target audience. It’s hard to argue with the results, which improve and expand upon ‘Rise of the Planet of the Apes’ in almost every way. Even when the film ends on a cliffhanger, there’s no sense of frustration. This chapter is told in a wholly satisfying way and will leave you walking out of the theater starting a mental countdown to the next movie.