The first film in this rebooted series, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was probably the second biggest surprise good movie of 2011 behind X-Men: First Class. It had been a decade since the failed Tim Burton remake, and Rise approached the same basic subject as Conquest of the Planet of the Apes did, but from a completely different starting point and without having to worry about adhering to the canon of the franchise behind it. It featured a present-day story of experimental virus testing on chimpanzees for the purposes of curing Alzheimer’s disease unwittingly bringing about the downfall of humanity and the rise of the apes, led by Caesar – the harbinger of their newfound intelligence.
Perhaps the best thing about Rise is that it treats its most plotty franchise elements (such as my description of it in the previous paragraph) as an afterthought. It instead focuses intently on the emotional arc of Caesar himself, observing how his heightened intelligence gives him an advantage over the other apes, and how after witnessing human injustice towards his kind he literally gifts that intelligence to all the others, rallying them into full scale rebellion. His relationship with Will (in what may be James Franco’s most earnest performance ever) was the key to Rise’s success.
The sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, directed by Cloverfield director Matt Reeves, is a darker and bigger story that pulls a similar trick. As a result, not only is it a good movie, it’s the best of the summer and an instant contender for best of the year.
Ten years after the liberation of the apes and the unstoppable spread of the virus that brought down human civilization all across the world, Dawn begins with Caesar leading a hunting party for food. He has a family and he governs a massive ape colony, which operates in many of the same ways prehistoric human society did. Unbeknownst to the apes, there is a band of human survivors from San Francisco not far from them. Barely scraping by, they’re a large but desperate group, led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) and Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). When a freak encounter makes both groups aware of each other, tensions begin to mount and contact becomes necessary, for the humans need access to the hydroelectric generator at a dam in Caesar’s territory, which he declares off-limits to humans.
It was allegedly once said by Albert Einstein that it is impossible to “simultaneously prevent and prepare for war.”
Such hard truth more or less sums up the basic narrative of this film, but not in the way you think. Caesar and Malcolm’s sincere mutual devotion to securing a peace is the hook that brings them and their families together. Yet their efforts are undermined by renegade parties in both camps, one of whom may be playing a political game of his own. Both Malcolm and Caesar may have to face the distinct possibility that the war was inevitable one way or another, that despite how monstrous the rhetoric may sound, it might very well be true that a once dominant species on the decline cannot coexist peacefully with its supplanting successors. Indeed we, the audience, know that if that war wasn’t coming, there’d be no movie.
Unfortunately, we already know who wins.
This is a story about how paranoia nullifies reason and how governing by fear dehumanizes a people. I am including apes in my usage of the word “people,” as here they are just like us in all the ways that are both good and bad. Intelligence has made them dynamic and multilayered characters in their own story, and Dawn is smart enough to treat them as such. We see Caesar teaching common sense to his teenage son, River. He commands the loyalty and respect of the entire colony that loves him, but he isn’t afraid to show his strength or even slap someone around, especially when his family is threatened. Malcolm is perhaps the first human since Will to see Caesar as an equal. In another movie, his exact same behavior might come across as hopelessly naïve, but Dawn keeps Malcolm moving just enough to make him work.
When the conflict does erupt, it’s both exciting and terrifying. On the one hand, there really is nothing like seeing a cavalry charge of gun-wielding apes on a rampage. The ensuing battle in the middle act is as good as this stuff pretty much gets, but the film doesn’t lose itself in the special effects the way Rise probably did in its final act, and it doesn’t stop there either. Here, the violence and the atrocities inflicted actually mean something, and Michael Giacchino’s score provides the perfect amount of epic scale and gravitas Dawn needs to work. Much like we see in real life in places like Darfur or Sierra Leone, the war corrupts the young and the innocent. Adolescent anger and confusion can be manipulated by those with ulterior motives.
If Rise was the story of the grown-up son leaving the home and taking his friends with him, Dawn is the story of how that son lost his innocence. In the ape community, almost all the communication is done through subtitled signing, but the sophistication of their dialogue is so impressive, it’s like you’re watching a foreign film. This more mature and fearsome Caesar has some hard lessons to learn, and Andy Serkis is nothing short of bedazzling. He’s the best motion-capture actor in the business and he doesn’t need Gollum to prove it. Like the other ape characters that are all well designed and distinguishable from one another, Caesar emotes on equal level with the human beings. His exasperation as a leader and as a family man comes through beautifully, with his character noticeably becoming colder and darker because of it. Jason Clarke’s performance here is less earnest and more directly intense than Franco’s was in Rise, but Clarke has always been good at that. It’s also good to see him play a vulnerable guy for a change.
Funnily enough, the actor who gets the short end of the stick in Dawn turns out to be Gary Oldman as Dreyfus, and this amounts to pretty much the film’s only real problem. Oldman has some great standout moments and he definitely proves to be not quite what he seemed in the trailer, but Dreyfus doesn’t really escape being a plot device in this film. I would have liked to see more from him, but in the end, the film isn’t really about him…or even about the humans.
The intelligence of the science fiction genre used to be undisputed. The original film, Planet of the Apes remains a classic in large part because of its commentary on the value of science over superstition, the injustice in man’s treatment of its evolutionary brothers and disrespect of nature, and our propensity for self-destruction. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the closest any of the other films in the franchise have come to matching that high bar, and it deserves hearty approbation for it. Even if you missed out on Rise, this film is standalone enough that you won’t have any trouble keeping up. As far as blockbusters in general go, it’s got the brains and the brawn to match any of them. Do not miss it.
Don’t worry about staying through the credits.
The Good: Andy Serkis, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman, Caesar’s characterization, Koba, River, the politics, the opening hunting scene, the ape society, the war, the intimacy, and the ending.
The Bad: Not enough Gary Oldman.
The Money Quote: “Do they look like just apes to you?”