I admit I have a 'thing' for monkeys. I seek out everything that I can find written about all simians, and watch every TV and movie about them that I see. But I do have an excuse. My Huffington readers may recall my recent article entitled, "Don't Even Think About Having Monkeys as Pets." I speak from great experience...since I had two small monkeys as pets for eleven years! A zookeeper at the Bronx Zoo told me that I broke the world record....no one has ever had squirrel monkeys as pets for anywhere nearly as long. He explained,"They die of respiratory diseases very quickly in ordinary human care." I know that I kept my pets in a germ-free environment, a cage with antiseptic lighting constantly scrubbed. But I also brought my tiny monkeys from New York to the Beverly Hills Hotel once a month for many years, carrying them on the plane in a Louis Vuitton pet carrier, keeping a cage in the hotel's basement which was set up in my suite before my arrival. The hotel supplied bananas and grapes, I carried their essential protein 'meal worms', and we went back and forth bi-coastally for a decade as I was producing movies here. (They would have died of 'heartbreak' if separated from me for too long.) "Demi" was the tiny shy male and "Schatzi" was the fierce proud female. (I had a German wife at the time, thus the names.) Demi would sit for hours on my shoulder plucking at my beard while I worked in my office. (Director Paul Mazursky modeled a scene in a film after this unique situation.) My two companions died of natural causes within three weeks of each other just before I moved permanently to L.A. in 1970. They are buried in a deep grave beside what was then and is now again 'Tavern on the Green,' across from my home. I still think of them often and fondly.
Which may partially explain why I was at the AMC 15 theater on Thursday evening for the first screening of 20th Century Fox' DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES. As a film reviewer, I was going to do this story, and the advance word-of-mouth had been fabulous But as I said, my interest in monkeys, apes, all simians, was already evident. Three years ago I favorably reviewed on these Huffington pages the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, which had marked the renaissance of the beloved franchise. I remember taking a meeting at Fox in 2001 and hearing the execs ponder how to revitalize their 35-year old Planet of the Apes franchise after the awful, unsuccessful Tim Burton version had just been murdered by the critics and public. It took them a decade to come up with the new look. Worth the wait.
It happens that I had been friends with a French novelist named Pierre Boulle, since we had worked together on a potential Cinerama movie when I was production exec there. In 1963 he gave me a copy of a novel he had written, Monkey Planet, but since it was in French and I didn't read it that well, I didn't read it until it was translated as "Planet of the Apes" later that year. I immediately wanted to shoot it in Cinerama but the other studio executives (Max Youngstein, etc) didn't see it my way, so we passed. Quel dommage. In 1968 the first successful film in the franchise was made by Fox with Charleton Heston.
I'm not going to go into great detail about the new technologies which are used; just be aware that this is not actors wearing monkey suits, like early on. These are 'real' primates performing like the fine actors who inspired them via CGI. Andy Serkis again playing Caesar, the leader of the genetically-modified chimps, faces off against the human danger, Gary Oldman, in a brilliant San Francisco setting. Breathtaking stuff. I saw the 3D version at AMC, and the last image in my head as I fell asleep on Thursday was of the furious ape-on-horseback leaping through a ring of fire with his machine guns blazing in each hand. This story picks up 10 years after the last one. The human race has been decimated by a global virus, with only 1 in 500 of the human race immune, while the ape world has built its own ecotopia in the Muir Woods outside of San Francisco. These are not the bone-tossing apes of Kubrick's 2001, A Space Odyssey. Oh, no, they're not. Under the wise guidance of Caesar, they have become more 'human' in many traits, communicating with each other by sign language and a halting version of English. A combination of apes, orangutans, gorillas and bonobos, all living together. We see them hunting with spears, teaching their young the rudiments of society. We realize that they haven't seen humans in some years, so the action begins when a small human expedition led by Malcolm (Jason Clarke) stumbles upon their ape-nation while searching for energy to power a small settlement of genetically-immune human survivors within the city's ruins. Bonds are tentatively established, with Caesar leading the way to a peaceful interaction while his right-hand aide, Koba (Toby Kebbell) rightly distrusts the humans. Clarke wants to coexist with them but his aide, Gary Oldman, instinctively distrust the apes. Clarke's wife is played by Kerri Russell, who has little to do but look attractive and suffer. Chaos is coming.
I could write reams about the possible metaphors of this situation (terrorism, slavery) but thankfully I won't. One critic wrote that the setup was worthy of a Shakespeare tragedy, with its complex web of allegiances and themes of revenge, loyalty, mercy....and, naturally, what it means to be 'human.' I could not take my eyes off Caesar, and comes Academy Award time, I know I could be voting for Andy Serkis to be nominated for an Oscar for his performance, motion capture or not, ape or not. Actually, it's not the performances (apart from Serkis' heartbreaking one) that you will be talking about to your friends. It will be the visual splendors, the eerie jungle-like setting and the city of San Francisco, most of it photographed in the forests near Vancouver and then in New Orleans.
Rupert Wyatt brilliantly directed the prequel, 'Rise" film, in 2011, and was supposed to do this sequal but stepped aside for Cloverfield's Matt Reeves. Wyatt had pioneered the photorealistic performance-capture simians, and Reeves has taken it to an even greater dimension. He sets the scene with a magnificently-rendered 3D redux of the previous film's end credits, setting the scene with news snippets about how he 'simian flu virus' has decimated the human population.
Once the uneasy truce is established between the two factions, the two hour+ drama settles into a recounting of how the truce shatters apart into all-out warfare between the species. I realize I had completely forgotten it was such an outstanding technical CGI-simulated situation and was so engrossed in the action that I was literally breathless for much of the movie. Talk abut production design (done by James Chinlund) and cinematography (by Michael Seresin, he of Alan Parker and Harry Potter fame), all of the credits are so outstanding that as a long-time filmmaker I can only whistle at how far the industry has progressed from my early days. There are no boundaries now to what can be done in a film. Period. And Michael Giacchino's score is rich, beautiful and highly emotional. Peter Jackson's New Zealand-based META did the technical work under the supervision of wizards Joe Letteri and Dan Lemmon, who were nominated for Oscars for the previous film. My old friend, Peter Chernin, produced along with the writers and Dylan Clark.
We move from Caesar's initial show of force to his exciting apes-on-horseback, ending with a stunning brutal conclusion atop a collapsing tower. A friend at Fox told me that Dawn marks the first time that 3D performance-capture technology has been shot outside of a studio. But I must emphasize that it's not all spectacle....there are intimate personal scenes which saw me teared up...when Caesar has trouble with his own progeny, Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston) and a new baby by his wife, Cornelia (Judy Greer). Even bad guy Oldman is empathetic when he sees a photo of his obliterated family. I must pay tribute to Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, who had pitched the first revival idea, using Alzheimer's research as the jumping-off point, and then ended up writing the 2011 film that Rupert Wyatt directed so well. Of course, fortunately, they were enlisted with Mark Bomback ("The Wolverine") to write this "Dawn." Superb realization.
Poignant drama, sophisticated inventive story-telling, compelling sympathetic performances, breathtaking action sequences...this is the end-all of post-apocalyptic stories. Believe me, none of this summer's megabucks films came close to this. Yes, a sequal is already in the works, and as Caesar ominously warns at the end: "War is coming." A Brave New World? Perhaps, but not like anything Huxley imagined. Director Reeves will be back, and in his paws it will be spectacular. (Remember Charlton Heston snarling at his ape captors: "Get your paws off me"? That was 46 year ago. Imagine.)
About that forthcoming sequal...I was told by a guy at Fox that Reeves decided to pull back at the ending in preparation for the next one. He leaves open the question of who we are as human beings and do we actually deserve to be stewards of this fragile planet. I know I will be seated at the Academy this weekend to see it again, and this timeI may be rooting for the apes. The worldwide boxoffice will be huge. Lord willing I will be in line on opening day for the sequal.
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