Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Apes + machine guns = awesome
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
Directed by Matt Reeves
Cast: Andy Serkis, Gary Oldman, Keri Russell, Jason Clarke
It’s a rare thing, in a summer movie season increasingly clogged with lazy remakes and formulaic sequels, to find a film that is both smart and surprising. In 2011 20th Century Fox rebooted the Planet of the Apes series with a savvy “prequel” called Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It managed to veer off in a fresh new direction, while still serving as a precursor to the timeline presented in the original 1968-73 film series (and wisely ignoring Tim Burton’s fumbled 2001 reboot). Although the film was relatively low budget, it was much better than expected, connected well with viewers and provided an interesting world from which future films could spring.
Fast-forward three years and we’re graced with the sequel-to-the-prequel, the surprisingly thoughtful Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Whereas Rise of the Planet of the Apes was a medical/scientific thriller, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is more in line with the classic films—a rousing sci-fi actioner with all sorts of red-hot social overtones. And apes with machine guns. Did we mention the apes with machine guns?
Dawn picks up a decade or so after Rise. Most of humanity has been wiped out thanks to a worldwide pandemic, unfairly labeled “simian flu.” Having escaped from captivity and fled into the Muir Woods north of San Francisco, hyperintelligent ape man Caesar (Andy Serkis) has spent the last 10 years leading his band of evolved apes and watching the lights wink slowly out over San Francisco as humanity dwindles.
A chance encounter in the woods, however, proves to Caesar that mankind isn’t quite as extinct as previously thought. A small group of human survivors, led by rational-thinking former architect Malcolm (Jason Clarke from Zero Dark Thirty and The Great Gatsby), enters the woods looking for an old hydroelectric dam. Seems the last fuel sources have run out in the city, and the ragtag human survivors clustered in downtown San Francisco’s financial district are desperate. Caesar orders the humans out of the woods, and in a show of strength shows up the next day in the City by the Bay with his army to set some boundaries. Humans stay in the city; apes stay in the woods.
Unfortunately, the surviving humans’ de facto leader (Gary Oldman, doing subtle work) realizes that without power he’ll have a revolt on his hands. That dam needs to be secured at any cost. Hoping to fend off a potential inter-species war, Malcolm volunteers to negotiate a peace treaty. With his med-professional girlfriend (Keri Russell) and his sullen teenage son (Kodi Smit-McPhee) in tow, Malcolm heads back into the woods.
Caesar, realizing that war would benefit neither race, warily allows Malcolm and his people to work on restoring the dam. Sadly, there are people (although, in this case, we should probably just go with “beings”) for whom war is the easier choice. Back in San Francisco, the more militaristically minded begin stockpiling weapons. Up in Ape City, human-hating Koba (Toby Kebbell) starts stirring the “humans are bad” pot. Will rational minds prevail, or is conflict inevitable?
The original five Planet of the Apes movies were all social parables dressed up in rubber-masked B-movie trappings. Racial inequality, class warfare and scientific ethics were just a few of the thinly disguised topics the original series toyed with. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes continues this tradition, delivering an unexpectedly heavy think-piece that reverberates long after the gunfire and explosions have died down. When they come, the pyrotechnics are spectacular. (With a budget almost double that of Rise, they ought to be.) But they don’t deliver the soulless, stand-up-and-cheer catharsis of your typical summer blockbuster (*cough*Transformers*cough*). Without spoiling too much of the narrative, it must be said that Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is one of the more downbeat action films you’ll see in summertime.
Serious moral or not, that doesn’t diminish the entertainment value one iota. At the end of the day, Dawn is still a drive-in-style B-movie with its mind on machine-gun-toting apes. (Rest assured, there will be machine-gun-toting apes.) The downside is that most of the characters aren’t all that complex. Keri Russell doesn’t have a lot to do, and Smit-McPhee never quite goes beyond “sullen teen.” But troubled hero Caesar is one of the most thoughtful, complex characters to come out of Hollywood in ages. Whenever Caesar is on screen, the film is mesmerizing. Given the artistic prejudices and general technophobia of Hollywood, Serkis will probably never be nominated for an Academy Award (certainly not for a performance that was “motion captured”). That’s a crying shame. His acting here is incredible: soulful, emotional, deeply affecting. After the events of the last film, Caesar has no great love for humans. But his isolationist attitude is simple: You stay in your world, and we’ll stay in ours. If only life were that easy.
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is a loud-and-clear antiwar parable. But it’s leavened with rip-roaring action sequences and sly emotional crescendos. You may be surprised, by the time the credits roll, how invested you are in the outcome of this tension-filled story. In just two films, FOX has proven this old franchise has got life in it still. Here’s hoping the next ... of the Planet of the Apes film swings through theaters sooner than later.