I was originally pretty suspicious of 2011's Rise of the Planet of the Apes, especially after Tim Burton's disastrous 2001 reboot and the overall campiness of the original films. But as I watched Rise, I soon became enthralled by the world and mind of Caesar, the CG technology that made him look so real, and the groundbreaking performance of Andy Serkis that brought him to life. But to adapt a line from Jerry Maguire, the apes didn't truly have me at "hello," but at another, more powerful word, "No!", as in the first word Caesar shouts. Not only was this word an act of long-awaited defiance, a declaration of freedom, and a call for revolution, but it made me think of the original Planet of the Apes and the roadmap it provides for this reboot, eventually leading to a world of intelligent, talking apes while humans have been reduced to non-speaking beasts of burden due to a catastrophe of their own making. Caesar's shout is probably my favorite movie moment in the past ten years.
So I was thrilled to watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the latest chapter of a true rarity -- a big-budget summer franchise imbued not only with cutting-edge visual effects, but with a tremendous amount of soul and thought meant to illustrate the follies of mankind and its disregard for the natural world. But unfortunately, there were so many missed opportunities in Dawn that I left feeling disappointed. Watch the trailer for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes below.
The film takes place 10 years after the end of Rise of the Planet of the Apes. In those years, the virus that makes apes smart and humans dead (dubbed the simian flu) has circled the globe killing 90 percent of the human population. Those who survived turned on each other, leaving only small pockets of humans with dwindling resources remaining, such as a group in San Francisco led by Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Meanwhile, the apes that were led into the Muir Woods by Caesar (Andy Serkis) are thriving and becoming more advanced -- they've built their own village, are educating themselves, and some even ride horses.
The two isolated hominid camps meet when a group of humans ventures into ape territory in search of an hydroelectric dam that could restore limited power to the city. Caesar, who retains warm feelings for the humans who raised him, believes that trusting the humans and helping them with the dam might be a path to peace, or at least mutual isolation. Caesar's main ally in the human camp is Malcolm (Jason Clarke), whose brief encounters with Caesar convinces him that the apes are peaceable and reasonable. However, Caesar's lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) has suffered too much at the hands of humans to trust them and advocates for war -- a sentiment echoed by Dreyfus, who can only see the apes as dumb animals that can't be trusted or reasoned with.
If you've seen any of the ads for Dawn, you know that the performance capture technology and the realism of the CG apes have taken an enormous leap forward and are worth the price of admission alone. In fact, the apes look so real and the way they move and communicate (mixing sign language, grunts, and occasional words) is so fascinating that I sometimes felt like I was watching an amazingly shot documentary that gave me a privileged look at an extraordinary ape society. Serkis continues to work a type of magic I can't even fathom, making an even stronger argument for a new Oscar category that recognizes his talents.
But as fascinating as the apes are, the humans are comparably boring and underdeveloped. For example, we know so little about Malcolm's background that his seemingly instant recognition and trust in the apes' virtues seems unfounded. I didn't see any qualities in Dreyfus that made him the kind of strong leader who could have shepherded his group of survivors through such turbulent times -- survivors who look well-fed, wear oddly clean clothes, and seem to bear few physical or mental scars from the fighting and near extinction they've supposedly witnessed. The reason Carver (Kirk Acevedo), the film's most ape-hating human, hates the apes so much makes no sense (holding a grudge against apes for simian flu is like being mad at birds for avian flu). Dawn's energy noticeably lags whenever apes aren't on screen.
Yes, I know the humans in the Planet of the Apes movies are supporting characters, but that didn't stop me from caring deeply about what was happening with Will Rodman (James Franco) in Rise and how his father's worsening Alzheimer's drives Will to take the risks that inadvertently lead to the creation of simian flu, or how the actions of the film's other humans (the head of the company that creates the simian flu, the father and son who run the ape facility) reflects humanity's ultimately fatal arrogance while justifying the apes' uprising.
Throughout Rise, humans are on a collision course with nature, leading to an ending that is ultimately tragic for humanity yet feels oddly just and inevitable as punishment for mankind's greed and sins against nature. Dawn seems perfectly positioned to continue and deepen these themes, showing how man's xenophobia, arrogance, and proclivity for violence (toward both animals and humans) sabotages their attempts at self-preservation, as well as any chance that the apes could forgive humanity for its legacy of cruelty. However, this point is weakened by portraying Koba as more of a villain instead of emphasizing why other apes would relate to his past experiences and how they justify his dim view of humanity and the course of action he calls for. I also felt cheated of seeing Caesar's evolution from a revolutionary to a leader who earns loyalty through wisdom and his ability to inspire.
Perhaps Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is the middle chapter of a trilogy, and the things I was hoping for in Dawn will play out in the next installment. I plan to see Dawn again to see if I'm being overly harsh, and I'll definitely look forward to what happens next on the planet that will be the apes. But I couldn't help feeling on numerous occasions that the makers of Dawn came right up to the edge of making a film as good as Rise that deepened its rich and resonant ideas, then backed away for no clear reason.