I referred to Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Fox's 2011 reboot of their venerable Apes franchise, as "an end of the world movie that makes you forget that it's an end of the world movie." Well, the end of the world is very much front-and-center when it comes to its ambitious sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. As directed by Cloverfield's Matt Reeves (stepping in for Rise's Rupert Wyatt), the latest Apes stands head-and-shoulders above this summer's blockbuster crop by providing a rollicking entertainment wrapped in a rich character study. It does what the very best sci-fi should do by leaving the audience wondering, "What would I do?" and (perhaps more importantly for the studio's bottom line), "What happens next?"
With a pre-title sequence that depicts the rapid, ravaging effects of the "Simian Flu" plague we were introduced to in the last movie's closing minutes, film picks up ten years later, with human civilization effectively wiped off the planet save for a very hardy few. Meanwhile, still in the San Francisco redwoods where we left them, chimpanzee leader Caesar (Andy Serkis) has seen his burgeoning civilization of intelligent apes grow even as he's watched the fires of humanity gradually dwindle.
This delicate status quo changes substantially when a small band of human survivors, part of the very small percentage of people who manifested a resistance to the virus, attempt to access a hydroelectric dam so they can bring power to their small community in the decayed ruins of San Francisco. Caesar, who was raised by a man and knows the good and kindness they're capable of, is amenable to the idea, as long as they leave immediately afterwards. Caesar's fellow Koba (Toby Kebbell), who's body bears the scars of abuse he received while captive in a human test facility, is less open. And thus are the battle lines drawn on the simian side.
Meanwhile, the humans' de facto leader Dreyfus (Gary Oldman) is just as distrustful of the apes (having the majority of your species wiped out by something called the Simian Flu would leave some emotional scars, I'd imagine), but kindly scientist Malcolm (Jason Clarke) sees an opportunity for the two sides to work together, and pleads for more time. And thus does a desperate race toward reconciliation begin even as the clock of war counts down. And if you think there's any way things are going to end well for all concerned, you obviously haven't seen how this story is supposed to end.
Before I even get into the rich storytelling terrain that's mined in Dawn, I need to yet again acknowledge the towering achievement that is WETA's revolutionary visual effects in creating their ape armies. As embodied by actors Serkis, Kebbell, Terry Notary, Judy Greer, etc., these are living, breathing characters that look and feel just as tactile and textured as John Chambers' still-spectactular ape makeups in the original five-film cycle (not to mention Rick Baker's brilliant work in the otherwise-execrable '01 reboot).
With a script by Rise writers Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver along with The Wolverine's Mark Bomback, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes stands with the very best of the eight (!!) films in this long-running franchise by squarely using its sci-fi setting to make some very cogent, very pointed observations about human nature. As director Reeves has said on several occasions, Dawn depicts the moment when it could have been "Planet of the Humans & Apes" but for the unwillingness of individuals on either side to bend. In that sense, this story truly marks Caesar as a mythic, larger-than-life figure: the peacemaker who will never know peace.
If I do have one quibble, it's the same as with the last one: the human characters are never as fully realized as their motion-capture opposite numbers. Clarke (also playing John Connor in the upcoming Terminator reboot, making him the go-to guy for leading humanity out of multiple apocalypses) gets the most to do, but Keri Russell (who first worked with Reeves on Felicity way back in the halcyon days of the late '90s) and Oldman both feel under-utilized. Luckily, with actors of their caliber, a little goes a long way, and that's certainly the case with Oldman, who's able to make the most of a fairly limited arc.
While Rise of the Planet of the Apes was littered with cute in-joke nods to the franchise's long and storied history (a character watching a Charlton Heston movie, another quoting his most famous line from the original film, etc.), Dawn eschews such beats in favor of thematic echoes that place it in the same continuum and style of storytelling. Whether deliberate or unintentional, there's a mirroring of the structure of the last film, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, that benefits this one by giving a sense of "All of this has happened before, and it will happen again" (I realize I'm mixing my sci-fi metaphors with that one, but just roll with it).
These "echoes" of Apes past are literalized by Michael Giacchino's brilliant music score, which clearly homages the unique atonal qualities of Jerry Goldsmith and Leonard Rosenman's soundtracks of the original films, while also bringing his own indelilble musical identity. Now, given that there's 2,000 years worth of story available to the filmmakers, it's entirely possible that this Apes franchise will at some point outgrow its lead the same way the first one did its star. And while it'd be a shame to lose Caesar (if not Serkis, who could presumably soldier on as a new mo-cap monkey the same as proto-Caesar Roddy McDowall), the road he's been placed on, while possibly tragic, is also impossibly compelling.
I've been a die-hard fan of the entire Planet of the Apes canon ever since I first saw the terrifying cartoon show as a wee lad in 1987. I've long held that the Apes franchise deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as sci-fi stalwarts like Star Trek and Star Wars, but unfortunately, at some point it was consigned to weekend TV marathons and got turned into a punchline, (a situation that surely wasn't helped by the unfortunate Tim Burton digression of '01). But now, thanks to the pipe-laying efforts of Jaffa & Silver, who conceived the Rise reboot, and thanks to Reeves & Co. advancing the ball with Dawn, I'm finally getting my wish. A
To hear me and my co-host Brian Hall talk through the original 1968 Planet of the Apes, check out the special episode of the MovieFilm Podcast below: