When Rise of the Planet of the Apes came out, it was met with a tidal wave of surprised praise. How did a movie starring a sleepy James Franco i- n a franchise that Tim Burton pretty solidly drove into the ground – manage to be not just bearable, but actually pretty great?
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, however, benefits from none of these lowered expectations. And it’s more than just an entry into the same franchise format – Dawn occurs about ten years following the events of the first movie. It tells the conflicting and intersecting stories of the colony of apes that established itself, as well as a small band of human survivors of the “simian plague.”The action gets started when an expeditions of humans attempt to reroute a hydropower dam leads them to the ape colony.
The smartest decision comes from realizing the real star of the first Planet of the Apes: Caesar. Honestly, James Franco was pretty much a non-entity for me, and all the burden of acting actually lay on Andy Serkis’groundbreaking motion capture work as the ape with unusual intelligence, Ceasar. He once again carries the lion’s share of the work here, although he’s joined in motion capture excellence by Toby Kebbel (Koba) and Nick Thurston (Blue Eyes).
The biggest strength of this rebooted franchise is just how seriously and profoundly it treats the ape side of its story. The first film was a broad departure in the franchise due to its sympathy towards the ape cause, ultimately making Ceasar’s arc from infant to tortured revolutionary the main dramatic thrust for the movie. This installment is astounding for its decision to play up the apes and humans’similarity, and the tragic downfall that leads to tragedy for both species. The only way to do this, however, is to really invest in the humanity of your primarily computer generated creations, and this is why the work by Serkis, Kebbel and Thurston is so essential. They give the apes weight, emotions, and reality that is essential to grounding the narrative. Especially because the humans, while well-acted and mostly engaging, are not as complicated nor as compelling as their simian counterparts.
There’s a trope in movies called the “noble savage”(if you’re a brave soul with a few hours to spare, fall down this rabbit hole). Dawn of the Planet of the Apes expertly and brilliantly subverts that trope by showing the way that nobility is not actually an inherently human trait, and that corruption is not an inherent part of civilization. Thus the battle between ape and human isn’t a battle between evil modernism and noble simplicity; it’s an attempt by good men to counteract the fear and pride that characterizes the worst parts of humanity. The fact this studio movie, made at a PG 13 rating, ultimately decides it’s also an impossible task is a testament to the faith that the studio put in director Matt Reeves and screenwriters Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and Mark Bomback.
Visually, the movie is perfectly rendered. It’s well aware of the symbolism of its story, and it plays with this in interesting ways. We begin with a hunting scene of the apes searching for prey, which ends in a dangerous, exciting battle between Ceasar’s son Blue Eyes and a brown bear. It’s a stark reminder that the apes, for all their advanced intelligence and complicated world building, are still subject to the same natural world that eventually took down humanity. It also does interesting work by introducing a pair of father/son duos, and allowing their similarities to drive a lot of the action of the film.
The human world is rendered similarly to that of a zombie survival movie. Although I think Jason Clarke’s Malcolm (the leader of the human expedition) is meant to reference the style of original Planet of the Apes star Charlton Heston (he’s wearing a poncho and a cowboy hat), it also reminded me a lot of The Walking Dead. In fact the whole vaguely Western themed town couldn’t stop reminding me of the desolate old timey landscape of AMC’s Zombie Drama. The contagion signs seemed taken directly out of 28 Days Later (and trillions of other post-zombie movies). I don’t think this is an accident. The visual motif manages to convey quickly and efficiently the scope of humanity’s devastation, and the level of fear these people live with daily.
And enough really can not be said about the motion capture work done on this film. It’s enough to make me think using live animals on set is a thing of the past. Fun fact about the motion capture work: on the first film, all apes were played by Andy Serkis and noted “ape movement expert*”Terry Notary. On this film, Notary trained a few other actors to join in the fray. They are brilliantly performed, and special effects company WETA does groundbreaking work, making countless apes feel photo-real in actual locations. The sheer depth and detail to their work gives the whole movie texture and is absolutely stunning to look at.
There are a few issues with plot, especially in the third act. The first two acts function primarily on the theory that there is no bad guy, just an inherent fear and distrust built from lifetime’s of tragedy on both sides of the ape/human divide. Ceasar serves as our grounding point for this conflict, alongside (to a lesser extent) Malcolm. When we cross into the third act, the film becomes more of a typical action flick, complete with patently evil bad guys (at one point, our antagonist murders a fellow ape just ‘cause). When the film loses its moral complexity, it loses some of what makes it so extraordinary.
But not entirely. In the (spoiler alert) downer ending, the movie regains some of its definitive grace and moral ambiguity. It’s a fitting entry in a franchise that seems to expand with each installment.
* this is an actual title. Notary is the only one in the world.